One of the most powerful college sports conferences in the US on Wednesday changed course on cancelling their autumn football season, aiming to stage games starting in October even as students at some member universities are quarantined due to coronavirus outbreaks.

The reversal comes just weeks after the Big Ten conference said it would postpone its season amid the still-raging pandemic. It also follows heavy pressure from President Donald Trump and the prospect of losing potential billions in revenue for its 14 member universities, including Michigan and Ohio State.

The conference said that improved medical testing capacity formed the basis of its decision to stage a delayed slate of football games beginning on October 23. 

“The new medical protocols and standards put into place by the Big Ten Return To Competition Task Force were pivotal in the decision to move forward with sports in the conference,” said Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University and chairman of the Big Ten council of presidents and chancellors.

Such protocols will include daily Covid-19 antigen testing for football teams and staff, as well as enhanced cardiac screening for any individuals who test positive before they can resume play. 

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The choice underscores the cultural significance of the sport in US society, particularly in Midwestern towns where economies are dependent on the influx of students, alumni and spectators at weekly games in the autumn. 

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As one of the so-called Power Five college sports conferences, the Big Ten brought in more than $1.8bn in revenue as recently as 2018, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

The Big Ten faced immediate pushback from some member universities, including Nebraska, when it announced that it would postpone its season due to the pandemic and its risks to student safety. Some other Power Five networks, such as the Southeastern Conference, have pressed onward with autumn sports. 

In recent weeks the Big Ten’s choice has been challenged by Mr Trump who urged the Midwestern conference — several of whose universities are in key electoral swing states, including Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — to stage football games.

“Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK”, Mr Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “All teams to participate. Thank you to the players, coaches, parents, and all school representatives. Have a FANTASTIC SEASON! It is my great honor to have helped!!!”

The financial impact of college football radiates beyond college campuses, and the ability to host fans in stadiums — or not — can have significant effects on local economies. 

Chart showing the athletics revenues of US colleges, organised by Football Bowl Subdivision. Combined, annual revenues for 2017-2018 were over $8bn, but the sources of revenue varied by the type of division. Over 75% of revenues from the 'Power 5' conferences — Southeastern, Big Ten, Pacific-12, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast — are from the NCAA (including media rights), ticket sales and donors. However, the 'Group of Five' conferences — Mountain West, Conference USA, American Athletic, Mid-American and Sun Belt — are much more reliant on  mandatory student fees and direct institutional support.

More than $16.9bn in outstanding balance on commercial mortgage-backed security loans are secured by hotels within a five-mile radius of a Power Five football stadium, according to analysis by DBRS Morningstar. The majority of those loans were already underperforming due to the pandemic, and as of early September, nearly 40 per cent were either delinquent or specially serviced, the firm wrote in a note published Tuesday.

“Historically there are just such a high amount of people that attend these games. A lot of these towns are not that big”, said Carson Applegate, an analyst for Morningstar. “A college football game can be a major economic variable and cancellations or restrictions around attendance can have major ramifications.”

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However, the decision risks sparking a fresh wave of infections — college campuses have been a particular concern to public health experts as students return to classes.

Students at member institution Michigan State University have been “strongly recommended” to quarantine after more than 300 individuals affiliated with the school tested positive for Covid-19, according to county health officials. 

“This is an urgent situation,” said Linda Vail, Ingham County Health Officer, last week. “The exponential growth of Covid-19 cases must stop. I am concerned about the health and safety of the MSU community, and importantly, I am seriously concerned that unchecked transmission locally will affect the health and safety of all Ingham County residents.”

Additional reporting by Joe Rennison

Via Financial Times