So what happens to all those game contracts if we adjust the season?
One lawyer told me it isn't as simple as you might think
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Okay! With the housekeeping out of the way, let’s talk about the best part of college football fandom….schedules and contracts!
The idea of adjusting the college football schedule is at least being talked about
I feel like I want to be really clear about this, seems there might be some confusion.
I have no idea what’s going to happen with COVID-19 over the summer and fall. Everything I know about infectious diseases, I’ve hastily googled over the last month. That means I know about as much as any other sportswriter…not very much.
What I do know is that athletic department officials are concerned enough about the trajectory of the disease that they are at least talking about alternative schedule models for the 2020 college football season. That might mean delaying the start of the season until October, or potentially the winter of 2021. It might mean shortening the season, perhaps by eliminating out-of-conference games. It might mean any number of other potential scenarios.
But college football isn’t like the NFL or NBA, where a centralized body could theoretically alter game schedules unilaterally, or mostly unilaterally. This sport is essentially a bunch of teeny tiny individual fiefdoms, all setting their own contracts, their own schedules, and more. So if a catastrophe forces mass schedule changes, well, those schools are going to have to figure out those contract details themselves.
Here’s an example of what these contracts typically say about cancelation. Here’s a copy of Ohio State’s recent contract to play UConn in 2025. Different schools may have slightly different language, but every contract I’ve read, on this clause, looks mostly the same. I’m using this one because it’s the first one I have handy in my FOIA-box:
Seems straightforward, right? If there’s a mass catastrophe that makes it impossible to play the game, then the game is canceled and nobody owes each other anything. If that’s not the case, and UConn fails to show up, they owe Ohio State money. Clause 15 says basically the same thing, just that if Ohio State doesn’t show up, they owe UConn money.
But it might not be so simple
I reached out to a lawyer who has worked within college athletics for a while, and he said there are a ton of potentially mitigating factors that could make changing schedules pretty complicated. For one, what you and I might consider an Act of God might not be what an insurance company or judge considers an Act of God. What if, hypothetically, we learn in a few months that COVID-19 really WAS a product of some sort of lab accident, rather than from animals? Then it’s not an Act of God anymore.
Exactly who orders the postponement or cancelation of a game matters quite a bit as well. If a game was ordered canceled or postponed by order of the state or federal government, it may be more likely that such a decision would free either school of a contractual obligation to pay the other side. If there was no specific government order, then maybe either school could be on the hook for a big check. What constitutes a “force majeure event”, I am told, is highly specific and fact-dependent, and not something any party ought to assume right now.
The stakes here are pretty high. If you’re a G5 program, those early “buy” games, or “bodybag” games, are a major source of financial revenue. A UConn, or MAC team, or lower-level MWC team, might make upwards of $1.6 million for a one-off road game against a power opponent. An FCS team could clear $500,000. In a world where revenue from ticket sales, student fees and conference distributions are much more fraught, the guaranteed income from the bodybag game becomes even more significant.
I’ve had a few folks tell me it’s pretty unlikely that most athletic departments have any kind of pandemic related insurance policies. The NCAA Tournament didn’t, many major conferences didn’t, and even the universities themselves don’t. Those premiums are expensive, and even now, might not be guaranteed to pay out.
It is possible that any schedule changes could be the subject of litigation, to figure out exactly who owes what in the event of a cancelation or postponement, but even that might not save anybody who is dependent on a game check. The lawyer I talked to said he thought it would be likely that such claims would take a long time to be processed by major insurance companies, and that anybody hoping to get paid as a result of litigation might need to wait years. If cash flow is an issue, even if the school is right about who owes what, they might not be able to get that money quickly enough.
Given that there are only so many potential football opponents, and that it makes sense to keep as positive a relationship as possible with them, the lawyer told me it would be possible that schools would simply decide to try and negotiate and settle, rather than bringing in all the suits. That might mean that a G5 opponent might take a much smaller up-front payment, in exchange for getting that football game played at a later date. You could even see some currently scheduled one-off games turn into home and homes by the back half of the decade, in an effort to make things right.
All of this just goes to show how complicated all of this stuff might get
Any adjustment to the start date or length of the 2020 college football season is simply going to be massively complicated and disruptive. It will require tons of contractual changes. It will require big adjustments from local hotels and travel logistics companies. It may require big changes from broadcast partners, who may suddenly have obligations from multiple sports at the same time. All of this is certainly doable, but it won’t be easy.
The details for how football starts, not just when, will matter a great deal. It may not be possible to make any massive adjustment to the football schedule without some teams being harmed more than others. Some teams are going to lose bye weeks at the worst possible time. Some are probably going to miss out on significant revenue. Some might get booted to ESPN dot Facebook dot org. Depending on the length of the season, I could even see some of those restrictions being so significant that not every D1 football team will come back in 2020, even if they’re allowed to.
Maybe this is all moot. Maybe the virus will somehow die out much sooner than we expect, or we become such excellent homebodies that the proverbial curve is smashed into a flat line. Maybe the season will start on time, everything looks normal, and doomsday financial projections are kicked down the road a bit.
In case there’s any confusion, this is what I really really want to happen. This means I’ll probably still have a job. It means I get to watch the sport that I love. And unquestionably, it means that many, many more Americans are healthy.
But I have no idea if that will happen. But I do know that if this sport has to move to plan B, it’s going to be disruptive and messy. And there will probably be lawyers.
Maybe we have an actual 2020 college football champion football team. But for my money, I think the squad that has the best chance of going undefeated this year is billable hours.
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