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August usually marks the start of the college football season—a time-honored, autumnal American tradition corresponding with the return of the academic year.
But as COVID-19 continues its spread throughout the U.S., that ritual appears to be in serious danger. The five largest college football conferences in America, known as the Power 5, are reportedly bracing for a cancellation of the upcoming football season—a move that would have wide-reaching economic consequences for scores of colleges and universities, not to mention their student-athletes and the massive industry that has grown around college sports.
College football generates more than $4 billion in annual revenue for the 65 universities making up the Power 5, according to data provided to Fortune by Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. Combined, those schools reaped nearly $1.8 billion in profits from their football programs in 2018, for an average of $27.5 million per university.
At many of the biggest football schools in America, college football accounts for an overwhelming chunk of their overall athletic department revenues. No university generated more football-related revenue in 2018 than the University of Texas at Austin, which brought in $156 million that year—more than 72% of its athletic department’s overall turnover, according to Rishe’s analysis. That dynamic extends to other major football schools. Of the 20 highest-grossing football programs in 2018, only one (Texas A&M University) drew less than 50% of its overall athletic department revenues from football.
So while the coronavirus pandemic has already forced the NCAA to cancel its annual March Madness college basketball tournament (a move that cost the governing body $375 million) and has prompted universities across the nation to scrap numerous sports ahead of the fall semester, the demise of the college football season would hurt significantly more. For many universities, football is the economic powerhouse that subsidizes other athletics—and those other programs could potentially find themselves endangered without the support of football-related revenues. Even without the specter of a canceled football season, Stanford University had to permanently cut 11 varsity sports programs last month, citing a projected $70 million budget deficit over the next three years.
According to Rishe, the loss of football ticketing revenues alone could cost Power 5 universities upwards of $1.2 billion this year. There would also be uncertainty around lucrative media rights deals that generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually for the nation’s most powerful athletic conferences, many of them tied to high-profile football broadcasts.
It would all put further strain on universities that are already reeling from the economic impacts of the pandemic on their overall business models. With institutions across the country bracing for lower enrollments (and a corresponding drop in tuition revenue, among other income streams), the absence of sports-related revenues would only compound the financial challenges facing universities—not to mention the surrounding college towns and localities whose economies are highly dependent on those schools.
There are also the financial futures of thousands of student-athletes to consider. The NCAA has received ample criticism in recent years for its stance on amateurism, which prohibits its athletes from being paid for their services—even as the NCAA and its member universities generate billions of dollars from student athletics.
The lack of a season this fall would throw another obstacle at those student-athletes hoping to make the leap to the professional ranks, where they stand to earn millions of dollars playing in the NFL. While the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to spring-sport athletes whose seasons were scuppered by the pandemic, it remains to be seen whether football players receive the same courtesy.
And because of the NFL’s rules around draft eligibility, it’s unclear whether players who would have otherwise been eligible to declare for next spring’s NFL draft will still be able to do so, or if they would have to wait another year.
Given the unique nature of the situation, Rishe tells Fortune that he “would expect the NCAA would allow select student-athletes to opt for the draft, so as to not impose additional financial burdens on them or their families.” According to Rishe, the average total value of an NFL rookie contract for a player selected in the first round of the draft was $17 million—resulting in a potentially “large opportunity cost value” for players forced to forgo the 2021 NFL Draft.
Representatives from the NCAA did not return requests for comment.
Many players are already collectively rallying around the cause of ensuring the 2020 college football season goes ahead—a cause that has drawn the support of President Trump. High-profile college football coaches including Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Alabama’s Nick Saban—who, it’s worth noting, are among the highest-paid public employees in the country, and stand to gain financially from the season proceeding as planned—have also joined the chorus.
Outside of the sport itself, there is a huge economic footprint that would be negatively impacted by the cancellation of the college football season. As legalized sports betting continues to gain a foothold across the U.S., college football stands as one of the most popular sports for American bettors to wager on—and its absence would certainly hit sports-betting companies where it hurts. Shares of the publicly traded sports books DraftKings and Penn National fell Monday on the news that the Power 5 conferences are considering canceling their football seasons, and the absence of college football could cost the gaming industry tens of billions of dollars in revenue.
The coming days will surely bring more clarity around whether or not we’ll have college football this fall. Already, non-Power 5 conferences like the Mountain West are opting to forgo football, among other sports. Within the Power 5, there are conflicting reports about the route each conference intends to take. Big Ten has reportedly already decided to cancel the 2020 season; the ACC is said to favor going ahead as planned; and the Pac-12 is expected to meet Tuesday to discuss its options.
Still, it appears increasingly likely that the powers that be will have to make a historic, difficult decision—one that would have major financial and economic implications beyond the game itself.
More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:
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- Wayfair finally turns a profit thanks to COVID-19 spending surge
- Sweden’s top virologist has a message on how to defeat coronavirus: Open schools and no masks
- Commentary: If the U.S. had handled COVID-19 like Europe did, 60,000 Americans would still be alive
- Commentary: The next stimulus should be a no-regrets infrastructure bill