Amid the most challenging sports issues of our time, ACC commissioner John Swofford on Friday offered financial insight, long-term patience and a home-movie recommendation.
During a 55-minute interview with The Times-Dispatch from his Greensboro, N.C., home, Swofford said:
- The conference’s monetary distributions to member schools for fiscal 2019-20 will be about 5% less than projected.
- With or without fans, college football could start on time, a month or two late, as late as 2021, or not at all, the latter a “dire” consequence economically for intercollegiate athletics.
- While peer conferences, the NCAA, ESPN, scores of athletic departments and universities, and nonsports businesses have furloughed/terminated employees and/or cut salaries and expenses, the ACC has yet to take any such measures.
The ACC’s commissioner since 1997, Swofford was typically placid and cautiously optimistic as he outlined college sports’ approach to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “right now there are lot more questions than there are answers.”
Attempting to provide those answers would be premature at best, reckless at worst. Sports, indeed much of the nation, shut down just more than six weeks ago. We’re still more than four months before the 2020 college football season is scheduled to commence.
Time should provide clarity, and Swofford believes a decision on whether to start football on time needs to be made by mid-July.
“Intercollegiate athletics is an important part … of our culture,” he said, “but with that said, we’re really a small part of this and its impact on the country and the world. There are so many [people] … hurting. It really puts life in perspective and our place in it in perspective. But I do think college athletics will be an important part of … coming back together, when the time is appropriate.”
Swofford meets each morning via video conference with the other Power Five commissioners, each Tuesday and Thursday with ACC athletic directors and every Wednesday with ACC presidents — the latter group includes Miami president Julio Frenk, a former Minister of Health in Mexico and dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health.
There are frequent, but less regimented, sessions with all 32 Division I commissioners. Swofford also has conferred with the conference’s football and basketball coaches.
Commissioners met remotely last week with Vice President Mike Pence, and initial reports said there was unanimous consent that college sports could not resume until students were back on campus. Those reports weren’t accurate, according to Swofford.
The commissioners’ overarching point, he said, was that college sports are different than the pros and that competition among athletes quarantined near what amounts to a remote television studio (empty stadium) is not an option. But there was no mandate that campuses be fully operational.
Hence, Swofford does not rule out fall-semester events, football and otherwise, with limited or no fans. Nor does he dismiss the idea of delaying the fall sports seasons until the spring semester.
Six weeks is the most-discussed runway for football players to reconvene and prepare for a season.
All decisions, Swofford said, have to be made “in the context of the health and safety of everybody that’s a part of it, and that’s a lot of people, and that can only be done on medical advice. …
“A lot of [rules] changes have taken place in recent years in the name of health and safety, and I applaud that tremendously, and you hate to go backward on that in any way, shape or form. The health and safety aspects for our student-athletes are vitally important and I think need to stay intact as much as they can as we address the issues surrounding a very abnormal situation.”
This is paramount. Football’s violence is taxing enough on a regular schedule. Foisting two full seasons during calendar 2021 onto unpaid athletes would be negligent.
So if spring football is the call, here’s hoping the 2021 season would be delayed and/or shortened.
Talk of abbreviating the football season has centered on playing conference games only. But Swofford said the ACC’s partnership with Notre Dame virtually precludes that step.
The Fighting Irish are football independents and ACC members for other sports. But that arrangement includes 5-6 football games annually against the ACC, six in 2020, and eliminating those contests would nuke half of Notre Dame’s schedule.
With fiscal 2019-20 set to end June 30, Swofford described the league’s finances as “pretty solid given the circumstances.” Much of the revenue lost from cancellation of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was mitigated by savings from canceling the ACC’s spring championships and conducting next month’s spring meetings virtually rather than in Florida.
Swofford said ACC Network and overall television revenue for 2019-20 remains “largely intact” and that the conference’s annual distributions to its schools will be about 95% of pre-pandemic expectations. The league’s most recent tax filing, for 2017-18, reported a $29.5 million average payout to the 14 full members.
If 2018-19 revenue increased modestly and the average distribution was north of $30 million — those figures are expected next month — then the 2019-20 decline would be less than $2 million per school. Swofford said the league is not yet considering tapping its reserves of approximately $30 million.
ACC officials are plotting myriad budgets for 2020-21, ranging from an on-time, complete football season to no football, the sport that accounts for 75-80% of league revenue. Some of the budget scenarios include the salary and personnel cuts that other conferences recently unveiled.
“You put something like that together,” Swofford said of the no-football budget, “and you put it in a drawer and lock the drawer and hope you never have to unlock it.”
Swofford and his wife, Nora, walk daily and watch a movie most evenings — their favorite during the past six weeks was “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.” But like many of us, Swofford feels a void in his life.
“I just look forward to the day, and the day will come,” he said, “when we play [sports] again and things will be back to some type of normalcy. And the sooner the better.”