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Big 12 Plans To Play Football And Other Sports In The Fall Despite COVID-19 Concerns

UT Austin is considering allowing 25% capacity at football games this fall.
Gabriel C. Pérez
UT Austin is considering allowing 25% capacity at football games this fall.

The Big 12 is planning to move forward with football, volleyball and soccer seasons in the fall.

The conference will continue with its football plan: playing nine conference games and just one nonconference game. Meanwhile, volleyball and soccer seasons will be limited to Big 12 opponents only.

The decision came a day after two of the so-called Power 5 conferences, the Pac-12 and Big Ten, opted to postpone fall sports with an eye toward the spring.

“Nobody has told us that it is poorly advised to go forward and do what we are doing,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, adding the caveat that things can — and probably will — change at any time. 

“Making adjustments on the fly are going to be a part of this, but our medical professionals have said go forward, move slowly, make small adjustments, be constantly vigilant about changes in the environment,” he said. “That’s what we’re listening to. They have told us it’s safe to move forward on that basis. When they tell us otherwise, we will be listening to that, as well.”

Citing player health and well-being as the conference’s biggest concerns, Big 12 schools have committed to testing athletes three times a week. Those who test positive will get follow-up tests, including an electrocardiogram, echocardiogram, cardiac MRI and a troponin blood test. Any nonconference football opponents also have to conform to Big 12 protocols during the week leading up to competition.

The announcement does not mean fans will be going to every game. That will depend on where games are played and what COVID-19 numbers are like at the time. UT Austin is looking into having 25% capacity at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

“Those kind of decisions on public assembly have been made to this point in time, and I think will continue to be made, by public health officials and governmental offices, and in the case of football stadiums, university trustees and leadership,” Bowlsby said.

UT, Baylor, Texas Christian University and Texas Tech will start conference play on Sept. 26. Volleyball and soccer have delayed their start until after Sept. 1.

Under normal circumstances, college football is a huge economic driver for universities and their towns. A 2015 study estimates UT home football games generate more than $60 million in economic activity for the city of Austin. UT’s athletic department budget takes in and spends more than $200 million annually.

Nationally, college football funds thousands of jobs directly — from coaches to grounds crews to marching bands. It creates the need for other jobs, like media, merchandising, hotel and restaurant workers. It funds scholarships that enable football and volleyball players, rowers and swimmers to land future jobs. 

Not all schools’ football teams generate money like UT’s or other Power 5 conference members’. Those schools are even more dependent on football games to earn money for their departments. Smaller schools agree to play larger ones for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

UT El Paso would be one of those, but its season preparation has hit a speed bump. It’s scheduled to play UT Austin on Sept. 19, but UTEP stopped practices this week after four players tested positive for COVID-19. UTEP would earn $1.4 million if the Miners make it to Austin in five weeks.

Those paydays could be a driver for conference decisions to play football this fall. UTEP’s conference, Conference USA, committed to playing a football season. The conference includes Rice, North Texas and UT San Antonio.

Texas State University plays in the Sun Belt Conference, which is also planning to play this fall, but cancellations by other conferences have put a number of holes in Texas State’s schedule. The Bobcats are set to play Southern Methodist University on Labor Day weekend in San Marcos, but right now they do not have another game scheduled until October.

Got a tip? Email Jimmy Maas at jmaas@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter  @maasdinero .

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I grew up in Austin and studied journalism at the University of Texas. I began my radio career making fun of headlines on local sports and news talk shows. I moved to New York City to be a comic. Found some pretty good "day jobs” managing a daily news radio show for the Wall Street Journal and later, producing business news for Bloomberg Television. Upon returning to Austin, I dabbled in many things, including hosting nights and weekends on KUT and producing nightly TV news. Now I’m waking up early to make Morning Edition on KUT even better than it already is.