The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

As September arrives, I’m reminded of just how much the coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives. You might expect I’d be long past such thoughts, given that I have worked from my home studio for all but three days since March 25 and I’ve eaten out a mere, let’s see, four times. But there is something that happens at the start of each September that is, for me, the most anticipated time of year: the kickoff of college football season.

This year, that won’t be happening. For such an American pastime to be put on hold highlights just how serious the situation is and why—no matter how much we would like to—returning to normal life is not yet in the playbook.

To say that there will be no college football season is not entirely accurate. The Big Ten and Pac-12 Conferences have postponed their seasons, while the Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, and Southeastern Conference (of which my alma mater, the University of Alabama, is a member) are forging ahead with an unusual solution: a shortened sea­­son with games played against conference members only.

The season we may get—provided Covid-19 clusters don’t sideline entire teams—is driven more by business than sportsmanship. Once a regional sport, college football has become a national one and garners incredible revenue for universities and television networks.

As athletic directors and university presidents debated in recent months whether or not to play, Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, put a number to the risk. He estimated that the 65 schools belonging to the aforementioned conferences (known as the Power Five) would collectively lose more than $4 billion in revenue if the season were not played.

This made outright cancellation almost unthinkable, as the financial loss could wreck not only the athletic departments of universities, but impact academics as well. At many schools, such as my alma mater, the money generated by sports teams ($164 million by the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2019) funds all sorts of programs and benefits.

PUNT TO 2021
Nevertheless, with no unifying governing body for college football, two of the biggest conferences chose to postpone and take the financial risk. They hope to play in spring, but whether that is possible is uncertain. And there can be no real national champion this season regardless.

This brought me back to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the financial impact of the pandemic—in a sports context—on the city most of us call home. I remember the frantic, frustrating, and time-consuming process of trying to get tickets, the feeling of victory when, after multiple lotteries, I finally landed a pair to women’s judo. But all the effort was for naught.

Will we see Olympic and Paralympic athletes compete next summer in the venues that Tokyo spent so much money to prepare? Will players from Ohio State, Michigan, and the University of Southern California take to the gridiron next spring? Honestly, I’m skeptical. But I hope so. Not only because, as a sports fan, I miss the competition, but because—for businesses—what is mere entertainment for some is critical to survival.

Christopher Bryan Jones is Editor-in-Chief of The ACCJ Journal. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he has lived in Japan since 1997.