For many sports fans, autumn weekends revolve around football: Friday night high school, Saturday morning college and Sunday afternoon NFL, until long after the leaves turn.
But the coronavirus pandemic could change that backdrop from fall foliage to spring flowers.
“I’m hoping not. I would prefer that we played in the fall,” St. John’s coach Gary Fasching said. “But … I think we have to be open-minded.”
The idea of pushing the Division I college season to spring surfaced early in the pandemic but faded as optimism grew about the fall. Recently, though, with COVID-19 cases surging nationally and several NCAA programs reporting positive tests, renewed attention has turned to what a spring football season could look like.
“I think the people who say it’s not [an option], in my opinion, just don’t want to think about it,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley told reporters. “… I, for one, think it’s very doable.”
The Ivy League is reportedly on the verge of pushing its fall sports to the spring, including a football season with a seven-game conference schedule through April and May. The Ivy League was the first to halt sports during the pandemic, and the NCAA as a whole could follow its lead again.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently called for the state’s high school league to push fall sports to the spring. Ohio and Tennessee also have reportedly discussed the same.
In Minnesota, however, high school coaches are saying a delayed season isn’t ideal.
“I think spring football is the last option we should look at,” said Dave Nelson, Minnesota Football Coaches Association (MFCA) assistant executive director. “But at least it’s an option.”
Spring weather is always an issue for Minnesota. Late March might be a bit chilly in Southern states, but blizzards happen here.
The Gophers have an indoor practice facility and an outdoor stadium with heating coils beneath the turf, but it’s unclear if playing outside in winter is feasible, from a player-safety and fan-experience standpoint.
U.S. Bank Stadium could host the Gophers, as the Metrodome once did. But not every program has access to an indoor venue, especially high schools.
“There are fewer turf fields, and in some parts of the state, their fields can be underwater in the spring,” said coaches association executive director Ron Stolski, who recently retired after coaching 58 seasons, the last 45 in Brainerd.
Donnie Brooks, athletic director at Macalester, said he’d have to juggle how his four athletic trainers could tend to all the extra athletes at one time. And with limited resources in Division III, he could see his baseball, softball, track, football and soccer teams all having to use the fieldhouse in January.
“Every ball field is going at the same time,” Brooks said. “That means early practice times and late-night practice times. And it would have a serious impact on the student experience.”
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has said moving football to the spring because of the pandemic “makes sense” but worries about what toll playing two seasons in one calendar year would take on his players. He notes that a championship-caliber team could play up to 28 games in one calendar year.
“Every idea that we have has some type of thought process back to No. 1 and foremost: player safety,” Fleck said.
Minnesota State Moorhead coach Steve Laqua mentioned how players who endure an injury in the spring season would then have their fall season jeopardized. He said coaches would be cautious about load management and lightening the summer conditioning schedule.
Decreased roster numbers could make that especially difficult.
“We don’t have any players that are on full scholarships. So we have 18 seniors; a majority of them have planned on graduating at the end of fall semester. So they’re not around in the spring,” Laqua said. “And are they going to pay tuition to take extra credits to play football? I’d say that’s probably an unlikely scenario.”
High school coaches have noted the impact football season in spring would have on multisport athletes. Minneapolis North football and track and field coach Charles Adams, for example, has many football players who do both.
“Two years ago, our 4 x 100-meter relay team went to the state track meet, and that was all football players,” he said.
But at the pandemic’s current rate, pushing forward for a fall football season poses its own risks and logistical headaches, such as how an inherently contact-heavy sport keeps players 6 feet apart.
“There is no way to social distance football,” Shakopee coach Ray Betton said. “So, if it moved to spring, I’d be all with it. But safety is the No. 1 concern.”
Similar to Laqua’s concern of losing players to early graduation, Division I might lose top talent to the NFL draft. And in high school, many top recruits leave school early to join their college team for the spring semester.
That brings up the “absolute wrench,” as Laqua put it, that a spring high school season would throw into college recruiting. His Division II program recruits heavily off senior year film ahead of a spring signing day.
The Minnesota State High School League does not have a rule preventing moving football to the spring.
“Our bylaws define length of season, number of contests, etc.,” MSHSL executive director Erich Martens said. “The season for each activity or sport is not in bylaw.”
A handful Division II and III colleges already have canceled fall sports. But many Minnesota coaches are optimistic about playing football come September. Some sort of season is imperative, for the benefit of the student-athletes and the athletics departments’ budgets.
The Gophers stand to lose as much as $75 million if there’s no fall football. Fasching said the St. John’s program largely depends on gate receipts from games.
David Carter, sports business professor at the University of Southern California, said college programs would have to re-evaluate many financial and legal aspects from amending broadcast contracts and sponsorship deals. They’d also have to retain fans in an oversaturated spring market, competing against March Madness.
But those would hopefully be short-term pains.
“It might be a one-time thing, and we might have to learn to do that for a year,” Fasching said of a spring season. “… You’ve just got to be flexible. You have to be able to adjust, and I think the schools that are able to do that … are the ones that are going to be able to handle this.”