Without Fans, Some College Football Games Won’t Make Financial Sense

When Alabama and Southern California agreed to kick off the season on Sept. 5 in Arlington, Texas, the one certain winner seemed to be the host — Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, whose Labor Day weekend game has become a college football staple.

Alabama would earn a flat fee of $6 million, according to an agreement the school signed, and U.S.C. would likely bank a similar amount. But if the teams drew anywhere near the 81,359 fans they did four years ago, it would be a bonanza for Jones, who would reap upward of $16 million in ticket sales alone, according to estimates from a seating price chart that lists rates for the public, starting at $100 for nosebleed seats.

Then toss in parking — where some of the stadium’s 12,000 spots go for $75 and up at Cowboys games — along with concessions, game merchandise, a 22 percent cut of each team’s merchandise, sponsorships, suites and event revenues, and it’s the start to an industrious Saturday afternoon.

The outlook significantly changed once the coronavirus struck.

Now, as it increasingly appears that the college football season will be played with restrictions — if it is played at all — college administrators and event promoters are busy wondering how games like Alabama-U.S.C. pencil out if crowds are prohibited or limited.

“The math has to work,” said Irwin Kishner, the co-chair of the Sports Law Group at Herrick Feinstein. “The site isn’t doing it for free.”

There are close to 30 games that are scheduled for the regular season for neutral sites, in neither team’s home stadium. Some are seasonal rituals, like when Texas and Oklahoma play at the Cotton Bowl or Southern and Grambling play at the Superdome on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Other games come without millions in payouts or prime time TV slots, like when Central Michigan and Western Michigan move their 93-year-old rivalry to Detroit’s Ford Field.

Several of these games largely cash in on the popularity of college football, particularly in the South. The same day that Alabama and U.S.C. are on the calendar, Baylor and Mississippi play at the Houston Texans’ stadium, and West Virginia and Florida State are scheduled at the Atlanta Falcons’ stadium, which is slated to host three college football games in a seven-day span (Auburn vs. North Carolina and Virginia vs. Georgia are the others).

Even if there are no limits on fans attending, there is a strong likelihood that many fans would be reluctant to travel, prompting organizers to confront the reality of games playing out in largely empty stadiums.

“Fans are important because they provide revenue,” said Gary Stokan, the chief executive of the Peach Bowl, which puts on the games in Atlanta. As for whether it makes sense to host games without fans packing the stands, as well as nearby restaurants and hotels, Sokan said: “We’re a long way before that can be decided. Certainly we’re dealing in hypotheticals. We want to deal with the reality of situations.”

No school is likely to be as impacted by playing games at third-party sites as Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are scheduled to open their season against Navy in Dublin on Aug. 29. They are also scheduled to play Wisconsin at the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field on Oct. 3, and have games against Wake Forest and Georgia Tech in N.F.L. stadiums.

Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame athletic director, said the school is in regularly contact with authorities in Ireland and the United States to understand travel policies and their implications for fans and the team. If travel is hindered in either direction or people are required to quarantine following the game, Swarbrick said: “That’s a pretty untenable situation. You’ve got to play the next week.”

Notre Dame’s game with Wisconsin is less complicated because the schools agreed to jointly rent Lambeau Field and share non-television revenue. If one team was renting the stadium and offering the other team a payout — as Rice is doing by paying Louisiana State $3.5 million to play at the Texans’ stadium on Sept. 19 — the game would more likely need a move because the hosting team would be absorbing the bulk of the losses.

“Something that was a straight share of revenue would present less of a challenge in this dynamic than something that was a straight rental agreement,” Swarbrick said.

The decisions on whether Notre Dame plays Wake Forest in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 26 or Georgia Tech in Atlanta on Nov. 14 will be largely left to those schools.

Neutral-site games have a long history in college football. Coaches like them because they can showcase their schools in new recruiting grounds. Fans like them as opportunities to travel. Sponsors like them because they can advertise to captive audiences. And players like the chance to play in N.F.L. stadiums and sometimes on hallowed grounds.

“It’s not only an athletic experience, but an educational experience,” said Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Commissioner Dennis Thomas, who as an Alcorn State center played at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Soldier Field in the early 1970s.

Historically black colleges are scheduled to play in nine neutral-site games, including Howard and Central State at the Pro Football Hall of Fame stadium in Canton, Ohio. That state has had some of the most aggressive measures early in the pandemic, which could leave Ohio in better position by September. It could also follow a more conservative path toward reopening.

“Everyone is in a holding pattern right now because if the state of Ohio — or the state of Florida or Tennessee — determines that you can have games but with no fans, the participating institutions and the third party will have some decisions to make,” Thomas said.

While seeing how the pandemic develops, athletic directors are studying contingencies, paying attention to the political winds and saying little other than acknowledging the uncertainty.

Joe Trahan, the Cowboys’ spokesman for events, said he would defer to the universities and did not respond to questions about the event.

While it contains no provisions with respect to a pandemic, Alabama’s contract contains contingencies in case attendance is hurt by N.C.A.A. penalties; in that case the $6 million payout could be withheld and renegotiated. The contract also allows for Alabama to have two suites, 75 parking passes, seating for the band at no charge and provides at least 25,000 tickets to re-sell to its fans at four suggested price points: $300, $200, $100 and $50 for students.

There is, however, no force majeure clause in the seven-page document, no pathway to a financial model that stands up in a pandemic.

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