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Peak Perspective: How does the Big Ten’s conference-only decision for fall athletics impact the Mountain West?

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The Big Ten announced that its fall athletics will move to conference-only schedules, just a day after the Ivy League announced the cancellation of its fall athletics until 2021. How will this impact the Mountain West?

The landscape for college athletics for the 2020-21 academic year is going to be drastically different from past years.

The Big Ten conference elected to eliminate non-conference play for all of its fall sports Thursday, according to Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic.

In total, 36 Big Ten non-conference football matchups — including Air Force vs. Purdue and San Jose State vs. Penn State (both originally scheduled for Sept. 19) — are now eviscerated from the 2020 schedule.

The Big Ten — the first FBS conference to take initiative on its fall schedule — could be soon followed by the Atlantic Coast Conference. Brent McMurphy of Stadium later reported that the ACC is also expected to play conference-only games in 2020.

How will this directly impact the Mountain West?

The Big Ten’s ruling sets a precedent that the other nine FBS conferences will take into consideration when making their own decisions for fall sports. If the ACC elects to limit its play to conference-only, then that means two power-five conferences are already adopting to limit its schedule and travel that could begin to create a ripple effect for the rest of the FBS.

First, let’s examine how The Big Ten’s decision affects travel.

With fall sports potentially returning over the next could of months and professional leagues — such as the MLB, NBA, WNBA and NHL — beginning to re-open, cases have spiked across America once again. The New York Times have reported that 36 states have shown a recent increase in cases over the past 14 days. California, Florida and Texas — home to 26 (out of 130) Division-I A (FBS) programs, including Mountain West’s own San Diego State, San Jose State and Fresno State — have reported 50,000-plus cases in the past week. The United States surpassed 60,000 reported cases for the first time Tuesday.

The Big Ten will effectively be limiting travel nationwide to limit the spread of the virus while still being able to generate revenue for its universities.

Ohio State was set up to travel nearly 2,500 miles to Eugene, Ore., to face Oregon (one of the most anticipated games in 2020). Michigan would have traveled nearly 2,300 miles to Seattle, Wash., to take on Washington. These are notable Big Ten road non-conference games that are now eradicated due to the Big Ten’s ruling.

Now are all of the Big Ten’s non-conference games 1,500-plus miles away? No, there’s multiple lay within those parameters. But there would be an imbalance of games played if just a portion of Big Ten teams were allowed to play certain non-conference opponents based on geographical distance. Focusing just on league-play sets an equal amount of games played for each program throughout the conference.

This is where the ripple effect starts.

The Pac-12 just lost two of its biggest non-conference matchups for this year. That itself could tip the iceberg on its side.

Auerbach reported that sources are telling The Athletic that they expect the Pac-12 to shift to conference-only scheduling too — a decision every conference will come to grips to sooner rather than later.

The Mountain West could be one of those conferences — potentially following in the Big Ten’s footsteps. The Mountain West has a combined 21 football games versus power-five opponents in 2020 — 16 versus Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 opponents (ACC - 1, Big Ten - 2, Pac-12 - 13).

If (and when) all three of these conferences make their conference-only schedules for this fall official, the Mountain West is without a chunk of its non-conference schedule.

This will impact not just the Mountain West, but every single group-of-five program and conference that schedules opponents in power-five conferences that eliminate out-of-conference play.

The Big Ten’s news comes nearly 24 hours after the Ivy League presidents voted to cancel all fall sports for the 2020 season, putting a hold on all their fall athletics until at least Jan. 1, 2021. Similarly to the spring sports cancellation in March, they became the first Division-I conference to cancel its fall athletics. Divison-III’s Centennial Conference suspended fall sports Tuesday.

Consequently, this means Ivy League winter sports — such as men’s and women’s basketball — will not be able to begin their seasons until January. According to Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports, the league’s decision on winter sports’ practice schedule will be determined later this month.

This fall cancellation will not only impact football, but men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s cross country, women’s field hockey and volleyball.

Could the Ivy League’s fall cancellation ultimately lead to more FCS leagues based in the northeast — such as the Patriot league, Colonel Athletic Association (CAA) and the Northeast league — cancelling their fall athletics? I can’t answer that question with absolute certainty, but it’s possible. In the worst-case scenerio, if those leagues cancel their fall sports for the 2020-21 academic year, fall sports could be cancelled throughout the entire FCS.

Now is the FCS more equipped than the FBS to cancel fall sports? Yes, they are.

Based on the FCS’s most recent data from 2018, 44 percent of their funding comes institutionally, compared to just 10 percent from the FBS. Nearly half of the FBS’s revenue comes from ticket sales, media rights, NCAA and conference distributions and postseason football — which all gets wiped out if a season is eliminated. While FCS programs will still take a hit financially if the fall season is eliminated, they wouldn’t undergo the same financial struggle that FBS programs would under similar circumstances.

The lack of revenue in athletic departments, particularly college football — NCAA’s largest source of revenue — leads to cutting of other sports.

Multiple universities have already cut sports because of COVID-19. Stanford cut 11 of its sports Wednesday; UConn eliminated four sports in June; Mountain West’s own Boise State cut ties with baseball along with swimming & diving last week. This is a shortlist of all the universities cutting different sports nationwide.

These cuts even come with fall athletics scheduled to take place. The affect if they did not take place for FBS programs would be nothing short of catastrophic.

As the fall semester approaches, there is serious speculation if college sports — where athletes do not receive compensation — should return in the fall at all.

I don’t think the Mountain West — or any FBS conference — will resort to no football, at least not yet. Speaking from the Mountain West’s perspective, there are too many financial implications that create a slippery slope for winter and spring athletics.

“If there is no college football this fall, there is very little likelihood there will be any other sports because 85 percent of the revenue colleges receive comes from football,” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said in April.

Thompson also talks about how the conference is looking to “maintain the same level of sports with a reduced revenue.” A conference-only schedule would accomplish just that — if this becomes the best plan to salvage the 2020 season.

Time is running out until the start of the fall athletic season, but there is unfortunately no timetable with COVID-19. Multiple programs across America — including Alabama, Auburn, Clemson and Florida — have experienced multiple positive cases, and more will arise as time passes.

The Big Ten’s decision Thursday could be a benchmark for what we see across the country. Don’t be surprised if more conferences — including the Mountain West — make similar decisions in the coming weeks.

Here is the Big Ten’s full statement:

We are facing uncertain and unprecedented times, and the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes, coaches, game officials, and others associated with our sports programs and campuses remain our number one priority.

To that end, the Big Ten Conference announced today that if the Conference is able to participate in fall sports (men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, football, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball) based on medical advice, it will move to Conference-only schedules in those sports. Details for these sports will be released at a later date, while decisions on sports not listed above will continue to be evaluated. 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.

This decision was made following many thoughtful conversations over several months between the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, Directors of Athletics, Conference Office staff, and medical experts including the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee.

In addition, the Conference announced that summer athletic activities will continue to be voluntary in all sports currently permitted to engage in such activities. Furthermore, Big Ten student-athletes who choose not to participate in intercollegiate athletics at any time during the summer and/or the 2020-21 academic year due to concerns about COVID-19 will continue to have their scholarship honored by their institution and will remain in good standing with their team.

While Big Ten member institutions continue to rely on the most up-to-date medical information to establish the best protocols for voluntary workouts on their campuses, in compliance with local and state regulations, the Conference is working with the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee to finalize Conference-wide protocols.

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.