How Moving Football Season To Spring Would Affect College Baseball
The NCAA on Wednesday announced a plan that will allow each of its three divisions to make their own decision about how to proceed with fall sports. This would allow Division I to choose to continue to play even after Divisions II and III opted to cancel the fall season due to the coronavirus pandemic, as they did Wednesday.
No decisions have yet been made for Division I at a national level—the division’s board of governors, a group mostly made up of university presidents, on Wednesday directed the Division I Council, a group made up of mostly athletic directors, to come up with a plan. Some conferences, meanwhile, are not waiting and have taken matters into their own hands. The Ivy League a month ago became the first Division I conference to cancel the fall sports season, a move several other conferences have made including the Big West, MAAC, MEAC, Northeast, Patriot League and SWAC.
The prospect of moving the fall sports season into the spring semester has been raised as an option should sports not be able to proceed this fall. The SWAC has been the most decisive about the idea, announcing it plans to hold a seven-game football schedule in the spring semester with training camp beginning in January. It also plans to move the rest of its fall sports into the spring semester. While no other conference has plans as definitive as the SWAC, some that have canceled their seasons are exploring the possibility. Division III, meanwhile, said after studying the option, it was “logistically untenable and financially prohibitive.”
Bringing fall sports to the spring semester remains an option across Division I, albeit a last resort in some officials’ eyes, across the country should fall sports be canceled. If spring football came to pass in 2021, how would it effect college baseball?
Coaches in the SWAC are already examining the effects, though the conference’s plans are still in the works. For now, with the SWAC acting alone, the effects on baseball would be limited. But if the fall sports season was moved to the spring throughout Division I, the effects on baseball would be unavoidable.
“It’s different if it’s a national conversation versus if it’s a conference conversation,” Southern coach Kerrick Jackson said. “If it’s a conference thing, they give us the assurance that everything will be fine.”
While the SWAC has already taken the plunge, how to fit fall, winter and spring sports all into one semester is not a question college administrators are fond of thinking about, clearly. The Power Five conferences have all in recent weeks announced plans for limited fall sports schedules. If only conference games are on the schedule, it will make it easier to change the schedule on the fly and they can implement uniform policies such as testing to keep players and staff safe.
But there are still many challenges to playing fall sports. Two weeks into MLB’s season, it has had to deal with outbreaks within two teams. Several states are hotspots for the virus and many others have travel restrictions for visitors. So, while many conferences are still moving forward with fall sports, they remain mindful that they may eventually need to alter their plans.
“I feel comfortable as we sit here today, but it's a fluid situation,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said Wednesday on Big Ten Network. “There's no guarantee that we will have fall sports or football season, but we're doing everything we possibly can that if we're so blessed to be able to have fall sports, that things are organized and done in a very methodical and professional manner.”
While the trend currently seems to be pointing toward playing sports this fall, circumstances can change quickly and spring football could become the best option. With so much money at stake from TV deals and having already wiped out most of the spring sports season, no one wants to see another season of competition completely lost. Proponents of such a plan also hope that the conditions of the pandemic will have improved by the new year and that fall sports could then go ahead, perhaps with more fans able to attend then are currently allowed.
Putting three seasons of sports into one semester promises to create a significant logjam for athletic departments, however. A concern that is commonly raised by college baseball coaches is whether athletic departments have enough personnel to cover all the sports playing at once.
One possible solution would be to delay the start of the season for baseball and other spring sports. Opening Day is scheduled for Feb. 19, but that’s likely to be about the same time a spring football season would begin. Delaying baseball’s Opening Day by a month, as proposed earlier this year in the New College Baseball Model, or even to the beginning of April, would help alleviate the overlap.
“I definitely think baseball would be moved back,” Jackson said. “In one sense, LSU playing Alabama in football on Saturday and having Texas A&M in for a weekend series in baseball sounds really, really cool, but being able to pull that off from a logistical sense, that’s tough. Even us having football on Saturday and hosting a weekend series, I don’t know how that’ll work.
“I could see baseball getting pushed back and them using it as an excuse for what if we pushed baseball back permanently.”
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The seasonal overlaps that exist regularly in the college sports calendar are already tough on departments. The average Division I school sponsors 18 sports. If they’re all playing at once, that will be a strain on everything from training to sports information to marketing.
“I can’t imagine most places having enough staffing to do a baseball game, a football game and a basketball game that would be going on,” one mid-major coach said. “If you move that stuff to the spring, how do you do volleyball? How do you do it all? It would be very difficult for us. It’s hard enough in the spring when you have baseball, softball, men’s basketball and women’s basketball and then you throw in the occasional track meet.
“If it’s moved to the spring, you would see people go, ‘We’re going to cut back on your games.’ ”
A 56-game season starting in mid-March or later would extend the NCAA Tournament into late July, requiring schools to keep players on campus deep into the summer. In a time of financial austerity in college athletic departments—which would only deepen without football this fall—that seems unlikely. More likely would be lopping the first four weeks off the season when nearly every team is playing nonconference games, often with some significant travel involved.
Unless Opening Day was delayed until football season ended, there would also be at many schools a concern about the logistics of gameday if fans are allowed to attend games in large numbers. At schools such as Florida State, Sam Houston State and Vanderbilt, the baseball stadium is right next door to the football stadium. College towns only have so many hotel rooms. Would it be possible to handle all the visitors?
While schedule makers would surely try to avoid football weekend conflicts, it’s unlikely they could map out a schedule that kept all other sports on the road while football was home. Baseball, which typically runs a three-game conference series from Friday-Sunday, would likely have to adjust its weekend schedule. That could be as simple as playing a game early Saturday if football was scheduled for a night game, or vice versa, or require a scheduled doubleheader on Friday or Sunday. It’s unlikely a series would extend from Thursday to Sunday with Saturday as an off day because of the extra costs associated with extending a trip by an extra day, as well as additional missed class time.
Whenever baseball does play, it’s unlikely it would be on traditional, linear cable channels as often. Faced with the choice of college baseball, basketball or football, baseball will not win out among network executives. And with other sports competing for air time as well, baseball is likely to be relegated to streaming for much of the season. Major conference schools likely will still be able to produce all the games going on at once for their streaming services. Smaller schools, however, may not have the capacity to produce everything at once.
Overlapping seasons would make it even more difficult than normal to be a two-sport athlete. There are only a couple dozen football/baseball players around the country, but the group includes prominent players such as Mississippi running back/outfielder Jerrion Ealy, Louisiana State defensive back/outfielder Maurice Hampton and Michigan State defensive end/righthander Adam Berghorst.
Two-sport athletes are on football scholarship by NCAA rule, which typically means their time on the gridiron is prioritized. How exactly their time would be managed would depend a lot on the baseball and football schedules, as well as their position on the field and spot in the depth chart. While some players and coaching staffs might be able to work out an arrangement where a player could play both sports simultaneously, others might start the semester with football only and then rejoin the baseball team after the football season ended. It’s also possible that some players could be forced to pick one sport for the semester.
For now, these questions remain purely hypothetical for every conference but the SWAC and baseball coaches hope it stays that way. They are rooting for fall sports to be played on schedule not only because of what that would mean for the progress of the pandemic and because they like watching football, but also because they understand what kind of havoc a spring football season would wreck on baseball and other spring sports.
“Baseball then, again, would take a backseat to football,” one coach said. “Of course, we’ll be asked to bite the bullet again, somehow, some way.”