Mississippi State football players’ post-practice routines are consistent. Student-athletes place their pads in their respective lockers before heading to the dining room in the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex for a team meal, snack or drink.
Some stop in the training room for varying treatments on whatever bumps or bruises they might have endured. Meetings or extra film study in the offices scattered throughout the building persist.
In 2020, that usual routine has new wrinkles. Neck gaiters and masks are worn throughout the building. Social distancing measures have been added. So too have brief strolls to the Longest Student Health Center where players have endured a slew of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, or a search for pieces of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the nose, throat or other parts of the respiratory tract through a nasal or throat swab.
For players, coaches and staff, the new measures are obvious but necessary inconveniences if they hope to complete the planned 10-game season this fall. For Southeastern Conference athletic departments, including those at MSU and Ole Miss, they represent a pricy grasp at normalcy in an era being defined by a global pandemic.
“If you want to move toward competition, you have to deal with the cost,” MSU Athletic Director John Cohen told The Dispatch. “And I can’t speak to what other schools may or may not be able to afford, but we’re going to do what’s prudent, we’re going to do what’s necessary and we’re going to meet the guidelines of the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference and probably, maybe even beyond.”
The SEC announced Friday, among other COVID-19-related guidelines, that football programs must test players via PCR at least twice each game week and also recommend they administer a third test by an alternative method. MSU Executive Senior Associate A.D./Sports Medicine and Performance Mary McLendon told The Dispatch the third alternative test gives schools flexibility to use rapid testing options that are either already available or will be in the near future.
MSU Chief Financial Officer Eric George said the school is spending an average of $75 per test. Should this metric be applied to the 114 players that appeared on last year’s football roster and the 10-game, conference-only schedule the Bulldogs are slated to play this fall, testing student-athletes three times per week alone could run the university $256,000, or $2,250 per player.
That price could be even higher in Oxford. Ole Miss Athletic Director Keith Carter told The Dispatch on Friday the school is spending closer to $100 per test — thus presenting a total cost as high as $354,000 for the entire team and $3,000 per player given its 118-man roster.
“When there’s something like this is — a mandate that comes down — it’s something you have to do,” George said. “So you really just put that at the top of the priority list, and it probably means that something down the road is not going to happen this year or not going to happen as quickly as we wanted to because there’s a there’s a finite pool of money and you have to cover your contractual stuff and your obligations before you can get into your wants.”
Those numbers don’t include coaching and staff testing, as well as treatment costs the universities will shoulder should student-athletes fall ill. Estimating that cost right now, however, is nothing more than a guessing game.
“At this point we don’t know because we really don’t know what the next few months are going to bring us, but we will adapt and adjust accordingly,” Cohen said of how MSU plans to weather treatment costs. “But at this point, it’s just very difficult to predict.”
Adjusting the budget
In preparation for the extra costs, MSU and Ole Miss are taking play-it-by-ear approaches to their respective spending — though there are some built-in options to shuffle money around if needed.
Ole Miss is one of a handful of Power Five schools to cut coach salaries, including those of head football coach Lane Kiffin and head men’s basketball coach Kermit Davis.
“In order to test and do all the things we have to do on the medical front we’re having to pull those dollars from other places,” Carter said. “It’s not like there’s a money tree where we can pluck another $100 off for a test. We’re going to have to be creative and make that work because that’s a priority and that’s important.”
George said cutting coaching salaries is far down the list of cost-saving measures at MSU.
Cohen suggested Thursday the NCAA’s ongoing recruiting dead period and the conference-only schedule could allow the school to siphon money away from recruiting and travel budgets — expenses that totaled more than $2.25 million during the 2018 fiscal year according to records obtained by The Dispatch.
Limits on fan capacity will also play a major role in how much MSU and Ole Miss are willing to spend on operating football during the pandemic.
For MSU, the football team accrued roughly $14.2 million in ticket revenue during the 2018 season according to the most recent records available. Therefore, if Davis Wade Stadium is limited to 50 or 25 percent capacity, the university could lose as much as $10.7 million in ticket-generated income, or roughly 10 percent of the athletic department’s total operating revenue.
George noted that the MSU athletic department has explored the potential for lines of credit in addition to varying avenues through the Bulldog Club if football is canceled entirely. He also said the department could receive a slice of the remaining $8.9 million the university received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — meetings on which are expected in the next two weeks.
As for Ole Miss, Carter said the school prepared its budget based on 50 percent stadium capacity, though he now concedes that if football is played it would be closer to 25 percent.
“For us, we had a good number of season tickets sold, and we feel like if none of this had happened we were going to have a pretty full stadium,” Carter said. “So now when you’re trying to adjust down to 25, or up to 50 percent, those are difficult, difficult conversations.”
Despite MSU, Ole Miss and schools nationwide following best practices prescribed by health care professionals, not all concerns can be entirely mitigated.
Player participation has been thrust to the forefront of discussions in recent weeks. Student-athletes from the Big Ten and Pac-12 Conferences threatened their respective administrators with not playing in return for scholarship assurances, clearer COVID-19 safety protocols and a number of other demands, while a number of Power Five conference players have opted out of the 2020 season entirely.
Those opting out of the season have largely been players slated to be first round selections in the 2021 NFL Draft — a caliber player neither MSU or Ole Miss likely possesses on their respective squads this year — but both Mississippi schools have pledged that should a player not feel comfortable competing this year, their scholarship will still be honored.
Both Cohen and Carter also noted players participating in the season at MSU or Ole Miss will not be required to sign liability waivers.
Logistically, it also remains to be seen what schools will do should an outbreak occur mid-season or if a slew of players decide not to participate. MSU coach Mike Leach told The Dispatch in a text message Friday he didn’t have an exact minimum number of players he’d need to field a team amid opt-outs, but that he’d hope to be two deep at every position.
Parents have also expressed a wide range of concerns regarding the upcoming season. According to one MSU football parent who spoke to The Dispatch on the condition of anonymity, he was most worried his children were safe, but noted it would take him or his wife asking their son to opt-out before he’d do so himself.
“Before we are football parents, we’re parents,” he said. “All parents want the safety of their child to be their top priority. It doesn’t matter if he was a football player, basketball player, a regular student that’s going back to a full campus of students. As a parent the natural thing is you want your child to be safe and that’s always the most important and foremost thing from parents.”
Conversely, one MSU football mother was most concerned with whether she and her family would be able to travel to Starkville for games as she’d already begun exploring Airbnb options.
“That’s going to be a bummer if the players have to play and they don’t have any support,” she said. “That’s been my main concern, because I know that the school is going to do everything possible to keep the boys safe because that’s what they’ve been doing thus far since this pandemic (began).”
‘A lot of uncertainty’
Though MSU, Ole Miss, and Power Five schools nationwide have charged ahead toward a potential football season, growing prices and health and safety concerns are leading to cancellations throughout the lower levels of college football.
The NCAA’s Divisions II and III canceled their respective fall championships on Wednesday, while the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (lower Division I) is reportedly close to falling below the 50-percent team participation threshold it would need to compete.
Saturday, the Mid-American Conference became the first Football Bowl Subdivision (higher Division I) league to opt out of a fall season, marking the biggest domino to fall in college football’s quest to play the 2020 season.
“I think it’s just there’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” George said. “So we’re taking it one day at a time and making sure that we’re putting the health and safety of our student-athletes and staff first and then managing our expenses and everything else that we’re trying to do to accomplish what we want to do from a safety standpoint and a performance standpoint without getting to a point where we run out of money.”