SEATTLE — The first domino fell on Thursday.
And the next seemed all but inevitable.
A day after the Big Ten announced it would adopt conference-only schedules for all sports this fall, the Pac-12 arrived at a similar decision on Friday following a meeting with conference presidents, chancellors and athletics directors.
In a release on Friday afternoon, the conference’s CEO group announced that “several Pac-12 sports” — including football, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s volleyball — will pivot to conference-only schedules this fall. The conference is also delaying the start of mandatory athletic activities — which would have begun for UW’s football program on Monday — “until a series of health and safety indicators, which have recently trended in a negative direction, provided sufficient positive data to enable a move to a second phase of return-to-play activities.”
Pac-12 athletes who choose not to participate during the coming academic year because of COVID-19 concerns will continue to have their scholarships honored and will remain in good standing with their team, according to the release.
The conference emphasized that it hopes to play football and other fall sports “provided that it can meet the health and safety needs of its student-athletes and obtain appropriate permissions from state and local health authorities.”
But for Washington, that means home games against Sacramento State on Sept. 12 and Utah State on Sept. 19 have both been canceled.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes and all those connected to Pac-12 sports continues to be our number one priority,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said in the statement. “Our decisions have and will be guided by science and data, and based upon the trends and indicators over the past days, it has become clear that we need to provide ourselves with maximum flexibility to schedule, and to delay any movement to the next phase of return-to-play activities.”
In terms of the aforementioned scheduling flexibility, the official release stated that the Pac-12 “has developed a series of potential fall sport scheduling models including Conference-only schedules and delayed season starts. Details on Conference-only schedules will be announced no later than July 31.”
Washington’s previously scheduled season opener against Michigan on Sept. 5 was wiped out with the Big Ten’s announcement on Thursday, though the Huskies are still scheduled to meet the Wolverines in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 2021. Husky athletics director Jen Cohen said in a statement on Thursday that efforts are being made to reschedule the Seattle leg of UW’s home-and-home series with Michigan.
As it currently stands, Jimmy Lake would make his head coaching debut on the road at Oregon on Oct. 3. It’s unclear, however, whether UW’s 2020 schedule will ultimately be entirely reworked. It’s possible the conference could expand beyond the current nine conference games, or spread those games out to allow for extra byes in case games must be rescheduled because of COVID-19 complications. The season could also be further delayed — maybe even to the spring — to provide time to hopefully contain the coronavirus.
It’s unclear how much of a payout UW will eventually owe Sacramento State and Utah State as well. Game agreements typically come with a standard force majeure clause — which frees both parties of liability in the case of an unforeseen catastrophe. But will the COVID-19 pandemic qualify? And will disputes surrounding that definition have to be settled in court?
For now, there’s more anxiety than answers. And the loss of football games, specifically, will put a significant financial strain on athletics departments nationwide. UW Athletics already announced plans to implement a 15% reduction in operating budget (roughly $8.5 million), and a 10% salary reduction for staff (roughly $5 million), in the 2021 financial year. All Husky head coaches have voluntarily agreed to a minimum 5% salary reduction, and assistant coaches and contract staff (including trainers, strength and conditioning and medical staff) have been asked to accept a voluntary minimum 3% pay cut.
All professional, classified and union staff members — which comprises 156 total employees, including UW’s associate athletics directors — will take temporary furloughs that will last between two and four weeks as well.
On May 13, Cohen and UW chief financial officer Kate Cullen presented a “best-case scenario” budget to the university’s board of regents that assumed all fall sports would be played with full fan attendance. And, even under those circumstances, the athletics department projected an FY21 deficit of $9,912,000 — which would shrink to $1,602,696 after implementing “deficit mitigation plans.”
Those deficit mitigation plans must be becoming more dramatic by the day.
Elsewhere, the Atlantic Coast Conference released a statement Friday estimating that the conference’s board of directors will make a decision on fall schedules in late July. The SEC and Big 12 conferences have yet to make updated comments on the issue.
“Competitive sports are an integral part of the educational experience for our student-athletes, and we will do everything that we can to support them in achieving their dreams while at the same time ensuring that their health and safety is at the forefront,” said Michael Schill, Pac-12 CEO group chair and president of the University of Oregon, in Friday’s statement.
Soon enough, many dreams may be dashed by the falling dominoes.
This story will be updated.