Could A College Football Bubble Be Possible in 2020?

It all starts tonight. The Washington Nationals take on the New York Yankees, and the MLB will officially become the first major American professional sport to restart after a hiatus closing in on five months. Golf, soccer, and Nascar have made their restarts, but we’re entering the glorious phase of Project Restart the Best Sports (unofficial trademark). Eight days after the MLB throws the first pitch, the NBA restart will tip off in Orlando, followed the day after by the NHL playoffs in two Canadian hub cities. Sure, the last five months have been among the worst to live through as a sports fan, but sports are back and raring to provide us with hours of entertainment from (if you plan it right), the moment we wake up til the moment our eyes shut for the night. Happy times.

However, question marks still abound regarding how successful these restarts will be, and even more questions abound when it comes to the fall season, particularly at the collegiate level. While the NFL has announced there will be zero preseason games (wouldn’t mind that becoming a regular occurrence), there has been little information regarding their actual season. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who might be the most well-recognized name in the country at this point, has said that a bubble, such as with the NHL and NBA, must be implemented for a season to be feasible. The MLB is not doing a bubble – although they are keeping teams within the designated Eastern, Central, and Western regions, but baseball is already designed for social distancing. Football…well it’s safe to say that’s not the case. This idea of a quasi-bubble for the NFL may have some legs, but what about college football? The collegiate game is taking off in popularity, with TV ratings up 50% in some regions across the country over the past couple of seasons, while the NFL ratings slid 15% from 2018 to 2019. NCAA football is at an all-time high in popularity, and to not have a season would be devastating. The impact would be felt across the country and virtually every school. For many schools, football is their only sport that turns a profit, and losing the season will lead to other program cuts off the gridiron. We already saw this when the up-and-coming Boise State baseball team was cut after just one partial season of play (during which they compiled a 9-5 record). Financially, it would take years, potentially decades, for colleges to recover from such a massive loss. Many football programs also contribute profits to financial aid – Notre Dame being one prominent university which takes this step. This isn’t simply about football. 

Boise State Baseball was just one of the many programs that has fallen victim to Covid-related cuts

And with no college football, and virtually every professional sport (hopefully) raging in full force this fall, can anyone guarantee with 100% confidence that college football can jump back into the picture with the same levels of growth it has seen in recent years? I doubt anyone can, and it is clear that, whether it is moved to the spring, abbreviated, or otherwise modified, a football season needs to happen. 

Spring Season A Last-Resort Fallback

Ultimately, moving the football season to the spring is a nice move in the spirit of not letting players compete during a pandemic, but it ultimately places college football in the unpleasant situation of needing to force a spring season, with no guarantee that the situation will be much better. The prospects of a usable human vaccine by spring seem bleak at best by the latest projections, and while that may change, as nobody really seems to know what is going on with the virus, moving the season to the spring puts everyone in a corner. 

So is there a feasible way to play in the fall? The obvious problem will be keeping players healthy. While many of these athletes are vying to further their career professionally, they are not being paid and opt-outs ought to be expected if there is no viable plan in place to keep the players as safe as possible. Unfortunately, a bubble – the most logical solution being utilized at the higher levels – seems completely impossible at the college level, where players are student-athletes and must be able to be on campus and taking classes (unless you’re UNC basketball players but let’s not delve into that controversy right now). 

But what if a quasi-bubble was possible?

Virtually every college and university has about two months of experience going completely virtual in the classroom, so why not utilize that newfound proficiency in creating what essentially amounts to a part-time bubble. It will require readily-available testing for players and coaches, but given the clear and ugly impacts of no season, this seems like a small price to pay. Hear this idea out. 

Each conference plays conference-only schedules to minimize exposure. This allows teams to play in a controlled environment where their opponents have only played similar teams within that bubble. If we wanted to go completely radical, we could realign the conferences so they were more based on geography, but let’s assume our sticky-fingered friends making the decisions aren’t too interested in losing the financial benefits that come with the current conference alignment. The first requirement will be to standardize the number of games –  some conferences play nine games, and others play eight with an additional non-conference clash. For our purposes let’s set the number of games at eight. 

Testing and Academics

The next step is to determine testing procedures. With conference only play and a bubble location, schools should only be using buses to travel to games, at least for the regular season portion of this plan. Flying will cause unnecessary risk that throws a wrench in this set-up. The testing will be the trickiest aspect of this situation, as there is no speedy way to receive results in a timely manner. At least a 24-36 hour buffer is needed to receive results, meaning there will need to be other options available. Temperature checks will be necessary before getting on the bus each week. Ideally tests will be taken Wednesday, results received Thursday night. Positive results will not be allowed to travel and final temperature checks will be instituted as a precautionary effort right before commencing the bus ride to the bubble. Maybe not perfect, but between returned tests on Thursday night and Friday morning temperature test, it’s about as good as it can get right now. To make this possible, teams should be allowed to have expanded active rosters, in order to maintain the needed depth to compete in each game. On the academic side of things, virtual learning will need to be available to athletes who wish to quarantine prior to a game. This shouldn’t be an issue, as many schools are doing in-class/virtual learning hybrid models so quarantines and Friday bus trips should pose little to no issue. There will need to be some way to enforce the integrity of these tests. As much as we’d love to rely on the honor of every coach, what happens when Justin Fields tests positive prior to the game versus Penn State? Can we trust the OSU coaching staff to make the right decision and not look the other way? Enforcement will be necessary, but as long as the testing is available, this seems like a manageable step. 

Creating a Bubble

Secondly will be creating the bubble. For each conference, simply use the most centrally located campus. Yes, this provides an unfortunate advantage to the team whose campus is chosen, but ultimately, with so no fans, how much would this matter? If we’re not concerned with offending teams, we could make the centrally located campus a relatively irrelevant team (like Illinois in the Big 10, Kansas in the Big 12, etc, but that’s beyond the point. Pick a centrally located campus and host three or four games there each weekend. This would be somewhat manageable. So one school is designated as the bubble for each conference, and 6-8 teams converge each weekend to clash on the gridiron. The schedule can be modified per conference, to account for the different number of squads in each, but ultimately, an ideally situation would allow each team to play two out of every three weeks. 12 weeks, 8 games, season concluding by early December. If there isn’t a campus willing to host the bubble, potentially an NFL stadium could be used, or some other alternative location. Soldier Field in Chicago could work with the Big 10, or potentially one of the massive high school stadiums in Texas could be utilized in the Big 12. If we’re not going to have fans, or very limited fans, does stadium size need to be considered a serious factor?

Questions and Concerns

Now, evidently, there is a myriad of questions that come with any idea that comes with this.

The testing will need to be efficient, and everyone will have to be on board. Teams will have to be ready for player opt-outs. You’ve seen it at the professional level, where the athletes are paid, so that will inevitably be a part of this system. How would the Playoff look with conference-only schedules? The Committee’s job has never been harder, and a one-year expansion may be necessary. To enforce conference-only play, Independent programs like Notre Dame, BYU, Army, and others would have to join a conference – or at least be included in their bubble for the years.

Another obvious drawback is simply that there will be no games on most campuses around the country. That’s a difficult reality, but one that seems to be imminent regardless of how the football season plays out. If no fans are allowed, is it really better to have LSU host Alabama, but every student stuck in their dorm room watching on TV? Or Notre Dame students watching the long-awaited Clemson clash via NBC’s primetime broadcast? Some colleges are hoping to host fans – Texas A&M recently announced they hope to open up Kyle Allen Field up to 50% capacity this fall. Will that hold? It’s unclear, but if there are campuses willing to host fans, maybe that plays into this bubble conversation. A full season with travel seems ridiculously unlikely at this point, so virtually any idea must be laid out on the table. Obviously there is financial loss by not hosting games on campus, but it’s not as bad as no games at all, and at least this quasi-bubble plan allows universities to recoup some of their losses, helping at least cushion the devastating impact of Covid-19.

There’s a lot that concerns to be addressed. But looking at the alternatives… Is it worth a shot?

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