The Big Ten Conference announced Thursday that if the 14-team league is able to participate in fall sports based on medical advice, it will move to conference-only schedules in those sports — men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball.
In doing so, the Big Ten became the first Power 5 conference to alter in any way its approach to fall sports, but other peer leagues, including the Pac-12 and the ACC, are expected to follow suit. SEC officials reportedly are meeting today to discuss the future. The Ivy League, which competes outside the Power 5, announced this week that it is delaying all fall sports until spring, at the earliest.
Thursday's news came as last year's Big Ten Conference football championship participants Ohio State and Wisconsin reported positive coronavirus tests, with Ohio State temporarily suspending voluntary workouts for all of its fall sports as a result.
According to the Big Ten's official statement, "By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions, the Conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic."
As reported by Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated, the conference-only approach provides several advantages, including closer proximity among competing teams and less travel time, with bus trips potentially replacing air travel in some cases; greater consistency in terms of team testing protocols, with fewer question marks surrounding the potential safety threats posed by visiting non-conference teams; and the preservation of the end goal of crowning conference champions.
The drawbacks are undeniable. Not only would such a schedule reduce the football regular season from 12 games to 10, marquee matchups will be sacrificed. These include Notre Dame at Wisconsin, Ohio State at Oregon, Michigan at Washington, Penn State at Virginia Tech and Miami at Michigan State. And financial losses will be huge. USA Today obtained the contracts to 26 of the 33 non-conference games on the 2020 Big Ten football schedule and found nearly $22.2 million in payouts to visiting opponents, most hailing from outside the Power 5 and thus more reliant on such revenue.
That said, playing any games in the fall seems may seem to many to be just this side of far-fetched, as the coronavirus rages in most regions of the country, and the Big Ten hasn't ruled out pulling the plug entirely.
According to the league statement, "As we continue to focus on how to play this season in a safe and responsible way, based on the best advice of medical experts, we are also prepared not to play in order to ensure the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes should the circumstances so dictate."