Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby: ‘I expect we’ll have a chance to be able to start the football season close to on time’
Prior to March 7, Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby had a lot of different issues on his plate. League competitions, name, image and likeness, TV contracts and transfer waivers were just some of the endless array of items that pulled him in different directions.
Since mid-March, though, Bowlsby’s time, like so many others, has been consumed primarily in dealing with the ramifications of the COVID-19 virus.
Last week I put in a request to the Big 12 office to set up an interview with the league’s commissioner, and this past Thursday evening he joined myself, Tony Caridi and Brad Howe on the “MetroNews Statewide Sportsline” to discuss our main topic, which at this point is how the coronavirus is affecting college athletics.
Here is that interview.
Q – Is this the single most challenging issue you’ve dealt with in the many decades you’ve been involved with athletics?
Bob Bowlsby – “First of all, thank you for reminding me how old I am (said with a chuckle), and yes it is. Typically we have situations that have a beginning, middle and end. Some of them go on for a long time; there isn’t any doubt about that. But this is the only one I can recall where you don’t see the end of it in sight. The virus is going to be around with us for a while, and we’re going to have to learn to coexist. In sports we spend a lot time in close contact with one another, so that creates some unique challenges. That is the situation we’re going through right now. West Virginia’s coaches and administrators, especially President (E. Gordon) Gee and (director of athletics) Shane Lyons, are intimately involved as we work our way through it.”
Q – College administrators used to talk about looking five or 10 years down the road when it came to things like TV contracts, but now you’re trying to look five or 10 weeks down the road, and that seems like it’s very difficult itself.
Bowlsby – “If we’re playing games, I think our TV partners will want to be there with us. They’re as anxious to have live sports back on the air as anyone. In retrospect, we’re happy that we’ve gotten involved with a digital platform (ESPN+) that will allow us to play games when we want to and to be broadcast in ways that linear cable sometimes doesn’t permit you to be on.
“I expect we’ll have a chance to be able to start the football season close to on time. That will include television. It’s hard to determine what the in-person consumer will feel like. I don’t suppose it will be too outside the realm of possibility that people will be a little bit apprehensive about going back to public assembly at large facilities, especially those people who may have underlying health issues. Time will tell on that. There are just too many components to forecast how it will turn out.”
Q – The number of moving parts in making these decisions is staggering, as I don’t need to tell you. Football is the main driver here for obvious reasons, primarily money. You’ve always been a big proponent for the other sports as well. Do you get the feeling that this is all-or-nothing, meaning that all the sports have to return in the fall or none of them will? Could football possibly return while other things are put on hold?
Bowlsby – “Well, football has the largest numbers and the players are in close proximately to one another. If you think about cross-country runners coming back, they typically try to keep distance between one another. On the soccer field, sometimes you’re distant and sometimes you’re not. I’m sure Nikki (Izzo-Brown, WVU’s women’s soccer coach) would like to be back just as soon as humanly possible, but we are not going to be making those decisions. Athletic administrators are going to have to be responsive to governors and public health officials. I’ve been on the phone with the governor’s office in West Virginia and have spent time with some of the staff members. I’ve had conversations with officials at the WVU medical center, and we’re drawing upon the very best advice we can find to work our way through the medical aspect of it. In the end, it’s going to be governors’ offices and public health officials that say, OK, it’s safe to come back. It’s safe to have students come back. It’s safe to have more than 10 people in a classroom, and those kinds of things.
“The next 60 days are very critical for us. If we are not back practicing by the middle of July in football or really anything else, it’s going to be hard to start (a season) on time. While I don’t think that date is etched in stone and I wouldn’t say it’s a drop-dead date, we do need a couple weeks of acclimation in the sport of football for kids who haven’t been on campus training at the level that they might have been previously. Then we need something close to four weeks of preseason camp to get ready. We’re going to have to see how that all fits together.
“The biggest reason that football has to be a high priority for us is the revenue it drives. It not only drives the bulk of the media revenue, it also drives the bulk of the gate receipt revenue as well. Along with that and attended with that are the donations and seat licenses and sponsorships. At West Virginia and most universities like it, football is a primary driver of the economic health of the athletic program. Absent that revenue, it may be difficult to have other sports competing at the level they are used to, because it’s going to be difficult to fund those things.
“The other thing that goes along with that, and what makes it that much worse, is that universities are under terrific financial stress right now. It’s not going to be very likely that university presidents and chancellors and governing boards are going to be able to do much bridge financing on behalf of the athletic programs. The athletic programs typically eat what they kill and are pretty much self-funding, but in difficult times like this, you’d hope there was another funding source to go to to get some help. I just don’t know if that will be the case given the reality that universities are under financial stress, just like athletic programs might be.”
Q – I know things are fluid, and thus the answer to this question may have changed in the past couple of weeks, but Commissioner Bowlsby, do students have to be on campus for the next piece of the equation to take place, and that is for games to be played? Or can things start if schools begin their semesters online? Where does that stand right now?
Bowlsby – “Perhaps that’s been a little misunderstood. I was asked a question a month or so ago, ‘Can you have football players on campus and can there be games if school is not in session?’ The answer is school has to be in session, because football players are student-athletes on college teams and you have to be going to college. That doesn’t necessarily mean that if the new normal is online education in part or in whole that football players or volleyball players or soccer players couldn’t be taking their classes online, just like the rest of the students are taking classes online. I suspect this fall will be a combination. You already have institutions who are saying they plan to have students on campus. Now they’re making special accommodations, putting kids in single rooms for housing and doing things in the dining hall to make sure there is social distancing. There will likely need to be spacing in the classrooms or smaller class sizes.
“I suspect there may be some institutions that are 100 percent online, and if they are and if that’s also what the student-athletes are doing, I think that meets the criteria.
“The thing that can’t happen is a university can’t decide to not have a fall semester, but they still bring student-athletes back. At that point they aren’t student-athletes. We need to be pursuing our education. If the new normal is online or some combination of online or in-person, I think that’s a satisfactory environment.”
Q – I know you’ve talked to all the commissioners of the other Power 5 conferences. Do you all have to be on the same schedule in terms of football, or could you see one conference following one schedule and you following a completely different one?
Bowlsby – “I think anything is possible at this point. We work very hard to work together. The five autonomy conferences work very hard to beat each other’s brains out, but the fact of the matter is that we like and respect one another. I have been on an hour call every morning since the seventh of March with my A-5 colleagues. We speak very regularly. The activities policy that is currently in place in our conference (setting rules for sports-related work during this period) is the same one that is in place in the other four. We have a May 31 expiration of that policy, and we’re working right now to decide what that looks like after May 31. Similarly we’re talking about recruiting periods and dead periods and quiet periods and how many evaluation days we are going to have in the fall, when the signing dates are going to be.
“We spend a lot of time collaborating with one another, and ideally we would like to go forward together. But as you know, there are some localities in the country that are under different circumstances. In Texas (which is home to the Big 12 headquarters), our governor is starting to open up the state, even though there are some trend lines that show us increasing the number of cases even in the present week. Whether we can continue to open up or whether other states are similarly situated, it’s just too early to tell. I suspect, because the virus is going to be around because there isn’t likely to be a vaccine in the next six months or so, we will find the virus rearing its ugly head at some times. That could be on sports teams, it could be on campuses, it could be in our communities, it’s hard to tell how it will all fit together. But given how virulent this virus is, it’s unrealistic to believe it won’t come back episodically. As we get into November, December and January, what traditionally is the flu, cold and virus season, there is a fairly high likelihood that it will come back. I just think we have to go about the process of putting in place the best plans we can.
“We have to do what we can to keep student-athletes and staff members safe. That is our priority, first and foremost. We also have to be flexible, because we are going to encounter positive tests that are going to be disruptive. We are going to have to be prepared to know how we deal with things. If the Mountaineers are scheduled to go to Oklahoma and all of a sudden Oklahoma has a positive test in their training room, there is going to be a question asked if the Mountaineers want to go and play and risk that situation. Is that a forfeit because they don’t get on a plane and go to Oklahoma? Is it a forfeit by Oklahoma, or is it a no-contest? If you end up with no-contests, what do you do at the end of the year when some people may have played seven games and some may have played nine games and some people played five games? It’s tough to declare a champion when everybody is dissimilarly situated.
“There are just some of these things that we have to be prepared for. We have to recognize that it’s not going to run true to form, and we’re going to have surprises and disruptions, and we’re going to have to have protocols to deal with them.”
Q – That was a small snapshot into all the decisions you and others have to make, which is what makes this so challenging. Given the disclaimer that what you say now could be different at the end of this month or in June, do you sense that there an appetite out there, if need be, to still go forth with games even if fans aren’t allowed in stadiums?
Bowlsby – “Well, I think players want to play and coaches want to coach, to the extent student-athletes and people around them can be safeguarded and risks be minimized. We hired an organization that specializes in infective diseases, and they’ll be advising us on how you optimize the cleaning of your locker room, how you optimize the cleaning of your training room or weight rooms. What kind of things do you do when kids report to practice in football or any other sport? What kind of things can you do with equipment to minimize transmission? We are drawing upon the best advice, both medical and scientific, that we possibly can.
“Yet, with all that at our disposal, it’s still too early to know how this will turn out. We need to do the best job we can pushing forward. Probably the most critical word I can mention is ‘patience.’ The virus is going to decide what our opportunities are and when they occur. That is unchallengeable. It’s already demonstrated that’s the case. As we open up society again and we get businesses back and restaurants back and those things happen, if we see spikes, it’s a whole new ballgame at that point.
“I see us starting the season. I think we’ll need social distancing in all parts of society. If there are going to be fans in the stands, I don’t know if they are going to want to sit cheek by jowl next to somebody they don’t know. So, you’d have to expect that the crowds would be a little bit soft, especially early in the season. We have to expect that people may choose, especially those with underlying health issues, to stay away from stadiums and public assemblies and concerts and even church and things like that. It will interesting to see how the psychology of public assembly goes forward after what our country has been through.”
Q – You said the key here is patience. I would think that whatever happens this season, it won’t be normal. It will be some variation of what we’re used to, but to think it will be normal is almost impossible. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but is that a fair assessment?
Bowlsby – “I think that’s a very fair assessment. I think we will have a new normal, though I don’t know what that new normal will look like. I think we have the best scientists and the best doctors in the world, and I think they’ll get their arms around this. It may not happen right away. I think it’s possible that it could affect us throughout the entire school year and maybe into the next school year as well.
“This is like the chicken pox or like HIV or SARS or MERS. All those viruses are still around, and we’ve learned ways to coexists without the expectation that they are necessarily going to go away. I think we are in for a new normal, much like we were in for a new normal in terms of air travel after 9/11. We’re going to have to learn to cope with this, and we will. We’ll have to learn how to optimize low transmission, and yet we’ll have to acknowledge the likelihood that we will transmit from one to the other, just as we do with the flu and the common cold.”