The Southeastern Conference, a dominant force in the big-money sport of college football, has given the go-ahead for athletes to return to campus for voluntary practices starting June 8.
Presidents of SEC universities voted Friday to reopen campuses for athletic activity, a widely expected move that pushes football a step closer to returning with training camps in August and games in September. Many logistical hurdles still need to be cleared, though the conference’s schools are mostly in states where the effects of COVID-19 were either comparatively minimal to begin with or have begun to ease.
TV networks and advertisers are likely to breathe a lot easier if college football resumes, though the operating climate remains hazardous in the absence of a widely available treatment or vaccine for COVID-19. The SEC Network is one of ESPN’s key holdings, and the conference’s games are a staple across the dial. In 2013, ESPN and the SEC announced a 20-year rights deal, which included plans to launch the dedicated network.
Disney-owned ESPN also airs the annual College Football Playoff, whose four-team tournament has netted big ratings since being created in 2014. In 2016, ESPN paid a reported $5.6 billion for 12 years of rights to all CFP bowl games.
Alabama, Auburn and Louisiana State, last year’s national champion, all play in the SEC, whose schools have won six of the last 10 national titles. Joe Burrow, quarterback at LSU, was the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft last month. SEC universities are located in 11 states, stretching west to east from Texas to Florida.
In a tweet, the conference said practices could be held “under strict supervision of designated university personnel and safety guidelines developed by each institution.”
Colleges overall have faced dilemmas about how and whether to resume in-person activities, from classrooms to athletic fields, in the fall. In the spring, students were sent home.
Because of the billions of dollars at stake for major universities and the uncertainty facing schools emerging from pandemic lockdown, resuming football has been seen as likely. The NCAA Council on Wednesday voted to allow college athletes to return to campus on June 1.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said this week that the Big 10 school has “played a little bit with the social distancing concept,” developing models that could allow 20,000 to 22,000 fans to attend games. Capable of hosting 102,000, Ohio Stadium is the third-biggest college football venue in the U.S. Smith has noted that Ohio State could lose up to $50 million if it admitted no fans for its entire season.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, one of the deans of college coaching, sees opening up practice facilities over the summer as compensation for the cancellation of spring practices, an important period of preparation. “That way, we can fully assess where everybody is, get them tested, get the test results back and go through all of the proper protocols,” Saban told ESPN. “Most of these guys are already working out at a local gym wherever they are right now. If they’re with us, at least we have the trainers, doctors and medical staff here on campus to monitor their health and well-being.”
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