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Big Ten moves to conference-only schedule for fall sports

An Ohio State-Michigan football Game. The Big Ten Conference said it will move all fall sports this year to a conference-only schedule. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

College sports in the US continues to operate under mounting pressure due to the Covid-19 pandemic as the Big Ten Conference said it will be limiting all fall sports, including football, this year to in-conference play.

A day after the Ivy League shut down all of its fall sports programs this year, the Big Ten became the first of the Power Five Conference to scale back its fall sports. The Atlantic Coast Conference is delaying its fall sports until at least September 1, but the Big Ten’s move will run through the entire season.

“By limiting our competition to other Big Ten institutions, the conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic,” the conference said in a statement.

In addition to football, the decision impacts men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball.

But this might not the only step the conference takes. Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner who joined the conference last year from the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings, told the Big Ten Network that like the Ivy League the Big Ten’s fall sports may be scrapped altogether.

“This is not a fait accompli that we’re going to have sports in the fall. We may not have sports in the fall,” Warren told the network. “We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten. We just wanted to make sure this was the next logical step to try and rely on our medical experts to keep our student-athletes at the center of all our decisions and make sure they are as healthy as they can possibly be from a mental, physical, and emotional wellness standpoint.”

The moves arrive as Covid-19 continues to surge in many parts of the US, including areas where Big Ten institutions are located.

“I’m really concerned,” said Gene Smith, athletic director of Big Ten member school Ohio State. “I was cautiously optimistic. I’m not even there now.”

In football, the Big Ten’s decision wipes out 42 non-conference games, many of them that were due to have a sizable impact determining the sport’s 2020 champion. 

The removal of those games also will render heavy financial impacts upon smaller schools that rely on those games. Known as “buy games” within the industry, Power Five conferences in those events pay smaller schools to travel to the larger ones to play in what are generally considered tune-up games. 

The University of Memphis, which was due to play Big Ten school Purdue on September 12 before the cancellation, said it is now looking to reduce its athletic department costs by $4.4m over the 2020-21 fiscal year in response to diminished revenue across the department.

“There has arguably never been a more uncertain financial period in our history, and the collective understanding of the sacrifices necessary by our entire athletics staff is both encouraging and appreciated,” said Laird Veatch, University of Memphis athletics director. 

Six other schools – Ball State, Bowling Green, Brigham Young, Central Michigan, UConn, and Northern Illinois – each had two Big Ten opponents on their respective schedules. Bowling Green in particular is set to lose $2.2m in revenue by missing out on its previously scheduled games against Ohio State and Illinois, and Central Michigan will lose $2.15m for not playing its games against Nebraska and Northwestern. 

“The decision by the Big Ten is the tip of the iceberg,” said Bob Moosbrugger, Bowling Green athletics director. “Ten [Football Bowl Subdivision] conferences have signed a college football playoff agreement with an expectation that we will work together for the good of college football. If we are solve these challenges and be truly dedicated to protecting the health and safety of our student-athletes, we need to do a better job of working together.”

Rescheduling details for the Big Ten will be announced a later date, and will certainly depend on the level to which its fall sports can proceed. 

It is not yet known whether the other Power Five entities will follow suit moving to a conference-only fall schedule. But the Big Ten’s move is being closely observed.

“The Southeastern Conference will continue to meet regularly with our campus leaders in the coming weeks, guided by medical advisors, to make the important decisions necessary to determine the best path forward related to the SEC fall sports,” said Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner. “We recognize the challenges ahead and know the well-being our student-athletes, coaches, staff, and fans must remain at the forefront of those decisions.”