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SportsPulse: Between the huddles and collisions there's no escaping the fact that football is a sport that can't avoid close contact. We discuss if the sport is even feasible during a pandemic. USA TODAY

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All this week, USA TODAY Sports will examine the possibility of a fall without football, and what that would mean in a country where the sport is king.

In the world of sports, there is simply no cash cow like football.

At the professional and major college level, it is the fulcrum upon which tens of billions of dollars shift, churning out revenue for NFL owners, athletic departments, television partners, sports books and more. In some instances, the sport can serve as a seasonal engine for an entire local economy.

But what would happen to that economic machinery if football couldn't be played in the fall?

For NFL teams and major college athletics departments, the financial implications of such a move would be staggering, far-reaching and compounded by unknowns. If COVID-19 wiped out play in the fall, could the season take place in the spring? How would a fall without football impact television partners and corporate sponsors? And how do you maintain operations when cash is only flowing out?

For Power Five athletics directors like Washington State's Pat Chun, such questions are hardly far-fetched.

"In this COVID environment, the world seems to change every 24, 48 hours – definitely week by week," Chun said. "There are so many hard decisions, and so many layers to every decision you make."

While a fall without football would have multi-billion dollar impacts for the NFL, television networks and sponsors, among other entities, the potential ripple effects at the college level are more complex.

In the Football Bowl Subdivision, the absence of a fall football season would likely translate either to an abbreviated spring season, or no season at all. Athletics directors must be prepared for either eventuality.

So, too, do local college towns, where multiple sectors of the economy might rely upon football Saturdays.

In a recent survey funded by the Texas A&M provost’s office and conducted by the university’s Private Enterprise Research Center and the Bryan/College Station Chamber of Commerce, for example, just over half of responding businesses said more than 20% of their current revenue is related to Texas A&M students, events or activities.

“I will tell you anecdotally that if you move football to (this) spring, while it may look the same on a one-year financial statement, there will be people not in business by spring,” Chamber president and CEO Glen Brewer said. “It will put people out of business. That is not an exaggeration. There’s no doubt about it.”

'Everything's on the table'

According to a USA TODAY Sports analysis of schools' financial reports to the NCAA, the 50-plus public schools in the Power Five conferences have at least $4.1 billion in fiscal-year revenue tied to football -- which is more than 60% of their athletics departments' combined total annual operating revenues, based on amounts reported for the 2019 fiscal year.

Unlike professional franchises with mega-rich owners, college athletics departments are parts of universities that are in the midst of massive financial problems caused by the pandemic. Some athletics departments have reserve funds that can help them get by for a while. But a survey this spring by the LEAD1 Association – which represents athletic directors at the NCAA’s 130 Football Bowl Subdivision Schools – found that 54 of 95 respondents said their departments do not have such funds.

Borrowing money is a possibility, but athletics debt loads already are significant. Among Power Five public school programs, the median athletically-related facilities debt service payment was $10.6 million in fiscal 2019, according to school financial reports to the NCAA that USA TODAY Sports compiled in partnership with Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Ultimately this means that, in a fall without football, "everything's on the table as far as expense mitigation," according to Houston athletics director Chris Pezman.

"We want to take care of our student-athletes and support services for them from all aspects, from academics to nutrition to training to sports medicine," he said. "But less active areas of our department would have to be looked at. More administrative and operational areas that don't affect our student-athletes are all going to be under review."

For some athletics departments, this could mean furloughing or laying off employees. It could mean negotiating, or extending, temporary pay reductions for well-paid coaches. And in some cases, it could mean eliminating entire sports.

If football cannot be played this fall, it is all but certain that schools would make an attempt to stage a season in the spring. But a spring season would likely create hiccups in cash flow, among other issues.

Schools would likely not play a full 12-game regular season in the spring, for a variety of reasons – which would impact payouts from TV and other commercial contracts. Games in the spring would be less valuable to advertisers, who use the third and fourth quarters of the year to build promotions and momentum for the holiday shopping season, according to AJ Maestas, the CEO of Navigate, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in college and professional sports rights valuations.

In separate interviews, Boise State AD Curt Apsey, Colorado AD Rick George and Kansas State AD Gene Taylor each cited uncertainty about football TV-revenue impacts as a major difficulty in trying to make budget decisions for fiscal 2021.

"We are so used to having that revenue kind of already in the bank," Taylor explained.

There's also attendance to consider.

Even in a spring scenario, stadium capacities might be heavily limited by social-distancing considerations. At present, schools are holding hundreds of millions of dollars in football season-ticket money and seating-rights payments. During the 2019 fiscal year, FBS public schools had nearly $1.1 billion in total football ticket sales, according to school financial reports.

"In our case, about 80% of our tickets have been renewed and 80% of our annual giving has already been received," Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione said. "The question is, what do those donors or ticket holders want in terms of their commitment in regards to those gifts or pledges?”

OU is among many schools that are, or will be, asking customers to leave their money where it is, either as credit toward next season or as an outright donation.

Meanwhile, any discussion of no college football this fall also has to include the prospect of no basketball during the fall semester – or perhaps until January. While men’s basketball does not have nearly the financial impact that football does, it is athletics departments’ other primary revenue source.

An NFL trickle-down

The NFL generates far more annual revenue than its major college counterparts, to the tune of approximately $16 billion last year, according to The Wall Street Journal.

While there's more money at stake in the pros, sports economist and Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist said the potential impact of a fall without football wouldn't be quite as dramatic for NFL owners as it would be for college athletic departments – namely because owners have more money to cushion the blows.

According to Forbes, NFL teams carry valuations of $1.9 billion to $5.5 billion, and half of NFL owners have a personal net worth of $2.1 billion or more.

"The problem’s not as bad because you’ve got a lot of very wealthy owners that are sitting on assets," Zimbalist said. "So if they can’t play football in the one fall, they lose $300 million in a year, but they’ll be able to survive."

The math is slightly different for players, however –  many of whom navigate injuries with each season, and are unable to amass wealth over the course of a long career.

That’s one of the reasons why the NFL and the NFL Players Association already have been engaged in negotiations about a wide range of issues, from health protocols to the potential impact of a decline in revenue on future salary caps. 

While their discussions have been rooted in the assumption that games will be played this season, they also could be viewed through the lens of what could happen if training camps begin but then a season does not.

“If we had our preference, we would never want the players of this year – and to a certain extent next year – (to) unfairly bear the brunt of a massive decrease in revenue in football,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a conference call with reporters Friday.

The NFL, like other major sports, depends on television deals for a substantial  chunk of its revenue. The league's current deals with Fox, CBS, NBC and ESPN each bring in nine- or ten-figure sums annually. And those networks, in turn, depend on NFL football for a substantial portion of their ad sales.

According to estimates from advertising measurement firm iSpot, NFL broadcasters sold more than $4.5 billion in ads during regular-season games last year alone. The absence of a season, therefore, could have dire consequences.

"While there could be nice short-term cash savings from eliminating annual rights payments, the hit to ratings, advertising and, thus, cord-cutting would be massively damaging," Michael Nathanson, a founding partner at research firm MoffettNathanson, wrote in a note to investors earlier this year.

"We equated this trade-off to saving money on your next water bill as you watch your house burn down."

'Who knows what the new normal looks like?'

Football's influence extends across a wide range of business sectors, including retail merchandise, travel, food and beverage, advertising, and, of course, gambling.

In towns like Green Bay, Wisconsin and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, a football-filled weekend is, in many ways, at the center of the local economy.

"What an Alabama game brings to Tuscaloosa, it’s in the millions of dollars for that weekend alone," said David Carter, an associate professor of sports business at Southern California.

The loss of a fall football season could potentially have longer-term implications for businesses in those communities, as well as the primary entities at every level.

The NFL and its television partners would feel the residual effects of a lost season not just this year, but for years to come. At the college level, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s worries not only about the fall, but also about the rest of the school year.

"Nobody's given us any assurances that this is a one-year problem," Bowlsby said. "All of our scientists and doctors are telling us that it's going to be a bumpy road in the next 12 months – that the virus is going to be with us for a period of time and we're going to have to learn to coexist. And so, you know, who knows what the new normal looks like?”

The NCAA and its member schools also remain under pressure from antitrust lawsuits pertaining to compensation limits for athletes. In addition, they are trying to figure out – and bargain with state lawmakers and Congress about – rules changes regarding athletes’ ability to make money from their name, images and likeness.

A fall without football could give university administrators a preview of how their sports program fare when they simply cannot spend as much as they have in recent years.

“I think what’s going to happen is that athletic directors and college presidents are going to realize that there’s a lot of fat in these programs,” Zimbalist said. “There’s a lot of waste. And they’re going to try to clean it up. ... So I do think that (this) could accelerate some of the changes that were in the pipeline anyways.”

Contributing: Nate Davis and Dan Wolken

Follow the reporters on Twitter at @ByBerkowitz and @Tom_Schad.

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