First Cancellations Emerge for Major College Football

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First Cancellations Emerge for Major College Football

Billy Witz

Four college football games involving historically black colleges and universities have been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, making them the first casualties of major college football leading up to a season that appears tenuous just over two months before its scheduled kickoff.

Two neutral-site games — Southern University versus Tennessee State in Detroit on Sept. 5 and Jackson State versus Tennessee State a week later in Memphis — have been canceled along with Southern’s home game on Sept. 12 against Florida A&M. Jackson State also was forced to cancel its Sept. 5 season opener against Langston University, because Langston and other N.A.I.A. schools have been prohibited from playing before Sept. 12.

Whether these cancellations are forerunners to more around the country — and at more powerful football programs — is uncertain, but they come as schools around the country are grappling with how to keep Covid-19 outbreaks from occurring as they push toward a season. Dozens of games have already been canceled at the lower levels of college football with Division II schools placing a 10-game limit on the season, and N.A.I.A. pushing its start date back two weeks, but these games are the first at the Division I level to be quashed.

The N.C.A.A. Division I council approved a plan Wednesday that paved the way for teams to begin their seasons as scheduled, making no changes to the 29-day preseason practice period.

“If I’m a student-athlete and I’m thinking about the fall, yeah, I do have a high level of concern,” said Mikki Allen, the athletic director at Tennessee State, who hopes to fill at least one of the two suddenly open spots on his schedule.

The cancellation of the Southern Heritage Classic in Memphis — the only decision that has been publicly announced — and the Detroit Classic underscore the financial vulnerability of neutral-site games during the pandemic, especially ones that are not underwritten by ESPN and thus depend more on live fans attending. A decision on the Sept. 6 game between Central State and Howard at the Pro Football Hall of Fame stadium in Canton, Ohio, will be made by July 1, according to an official briefed on the decision.

There are close to 30 games that were scheduled for neutral sites this season, ranging from marquee events that could influence the College Football Playoff selections — like Alabama playing Southern California in Arlington, Texas — to seasonal rituals, like when Georgia and Florida play in Jacksonville, Fla., or the Grambling and Southern meeting in New Orleans on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Even before Wednesday, the pandemic had forced Notre Dame’s game with Navy, scheduled for Aug. 29 in Dublin to be relocated to the Naval Academy’s 34,000-seat stadium in Annapolis, Md.

As it becomes increasingly likely that fans will be limited — or prohibited — from attending, it is harder for third-party promoters to pencil out a profit. Consider Alabama’s game with U.S.C. on Labor Day weekend, one of two college games that the Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones plans to host in September. If the game drew anywhere near the 81,359 that showed up for their season-opener there in 2016, Jones would reap upward of $16 million in ticket revenue alone, based on estimates from a price chart included in a game contract that lists rates for the public, starting at $100 for nosebleed seats.

That plus parking — where some of the 12,000 spots go for $75 and up at Cowboys games — along with concessions, game merchandise, a 22 percent cut of each team’s merchandise, sponsorships, suites and event revenues should leave a tidy profit after paying Alabama its $6 million guarantee and U.S.C. likely a comparable amount.

But with coronavirus cases spiking in various states, it remains unclear whether fans will be able to attend.

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In some cases, broadcast networks may ensure the games are played as scheduled.

Dennis Thomas, the commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, said that ESPN planned to still go forward with a game between one of his conference’s schools, South Carolina State, and Grambling, on Sept. 6 at the Atlanta Braves’ former stadium.

“If you don’t have the backing of a multimedia company, the numbers are not going to make sense,” Thomas said.

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That turned out to be the case for the games in Detroit and Memphis.

This was to have been the 31st edition of the Southern Heritage Classic, all but two of which have featured Jackson State and Tennessee State.

Fred Jones, the event organizer, had built it into a three-day extravaganza for the historically black colleges, which are both about 210 miles from Memphis. The weekend was scheduled to kick off on Sept. 10 with a concert by Patti LaBelle with Jeffrey Osborne, and in the next two days would include a coaches’ luncheon, 3-kilometer race, golf tournament, parade, fashion show, battle of the high school bands and an extravagant tailgating scene leading up to a Saturday night kickoff.

Holding those events while adhering to social distancing guidelines became untenable.

“When they tell you that events like what we have — the game, the parade, the tailgating — are super-spreaders and they tell you that’s a problem, you don’t have no other way to react,” said Jones, who as a 72-year-old black man with diabetes has a higher risk of severe illness if he catches the virus.

Added Cheryl Parks Ajamu, the organizer of the Detroit Classic: “In Michigan, Covid-19 is the top concern and because our primary customer has the highest incidence of Covid-19, that’s a top priority.”

The cancellations have left schools scrambling to fill holes in their schedule. Jackson State is working with Tennessee State to potentially move their game to Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 5, and speaking with Florida A&M to fill its now open Sept. 12 date. Schools are also seeking to fill another hole in their budget: the two canceled games for Tennessee State were their two biggest paydays of the season — $400,000 for the game in Detroit and $350,000 for the one in Memphis.

“I’ll say this,” said Allen, who was hired as the athletic director at Tennessee State in April. “Covid-19, in the spirit of athletics, has been a juggernaut opponent.”