Coronavirus has changed the landscape of sports for nearly five months now. We’ve seen the shutdown of the NBA and NHL seasons and the long delay of the Major League Baseball season. Those sports have rebounded and found a way to come back, but recent news has another American sporting giant on the ropes: college football.
Commissioners from the Power 5 conferences held an emergency meeting Sunday night to discuss the future of the 2020 college football season. Earlier in the week, the MAC became the first FBS conference to cancel fall sports. The Big Ten and Pac 12 are expected to follow suit as soon as today. The college football season isn’t dead yet, but it’s safe to say it’s on life support. In the likely event that college football cancels (or postpones to the spring) their season, the question we’re left with is how does this affect the NFL?
There are three ways I see a cancelled college football season affecting the NFL.
1) The Pressure to Cancel
Roger Goodell continues to say that he expects the NFL to play a full season. The other three major sports have found a way to continue their season, and I see no reason why the NFL won’t attempt to play a season as well. But if and when college football is canceled, expect there to be enormous public pressure on the NFL to shut down.
A NBA-like bubble isn’t possible, and the sport is far more physical than the MLB. There will be cases of Covid-19 in the NFL; there’s no way around that. We may even see teams have outbreaks like the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals have experienced. When that time comes, the pressure and outside noise will be deafening and Goodell and the owners will have some tough decisions to make.
2) The NFL Draft
If college football isn’t played this fall, perhaps the biggest effect will happen next spring when the draft rolls around. Teams will have no new scouting to rely on. Combine workouts and pro days will become of utmost importance. The draft will be a crapshoot unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Consider this past season. Entering the year, Joe Burrow was pegged by Mel Kiper as a 6th round prospect. After a breakout, record-setting Heisman campaign, Burrow was drafted #1 overall by the Bengals. A guy like Jake Fromm entered the year as a borderline round 1-2 pick. After a good but not great junior season, Fromm fell to the 5th round where the Bills scooped him up. Had the 2019 college season not been played, Fromm is likely a first-round pick while Burrow would have gone on Day 3.
College players are still very young men. They’re still growing and still learning the technical aspects of the game. Every year, you also have players that are exceptionally talented but have waited behind another superstar player before getting their turn to shine. Three years ago, Baker Mayfield was all the talk of college football and played himself into the top pick in the 2018 draft. His backup who rarely played was a guy named Kyler Murray. Of course, once Murray had his chance to shine, he led Oklahoma to the College Football Playoff, won the Heisman Trophy, and was the #1 pick in the 2019 draft. Expect the 2021 NFL Draft to feature several busts in the first round and many future superstars found in the later rounds.
3) TV Flexibility
If college football is indeed dead in 2020, expect the NFL to take full advantage of the vacated Saturday time slots. College football and the NFL have generally avoided each, with Saturday being sacred in the college game and Sunday belonging to the pros. With games being played without fans, moving games from Sunday to Saturday becomes much easier logistically. Imagine noon and 3:30 on Saturdays with NFL games. Or a Saturday night Primetime game. Thursday night games could now be moved back to Friday or Saturday, giving players more time to rest and giving the league more time to test for coronavirus throughout the week.
In the absence of college football, the NFL will have an opportunity to expand its accessibility to fans. ESPN might be willing to partner with the NFL to air some additional games each weekend. Instead of shelling out $300 for the Sunday NFL Ticket, fans could have access to most of the games on a given weekend.
The future is uncertain, and we would be wise to expect the unexpected this season. The last five months have been difficult, and our lives have been turned upside down. Here’s hoping the NFL is able to bring back a little bit of normalcy into our lives this fall…safely, of course.
Tell me this doesn’t get you pumped…