Across the six states of New England, colleges and universities dot the landscape.
Among them, only Boston College is playing sports this fall.
And with the spotlight shining on the school lately in large part because of a COVID-19 outbreak on the swimming and diving team, the same question keeps popping up.
Why is BC playing fall sports in the first place?
The school says it’s a two-part answer: The athletes want to play, and BC’s medical experts have deemed that they can do so safely during the pandemic.
However, some college sports business experts believe the answer is incomplete.
Unless every other college in New England is relying on medical experts who are both misinterpreting the data and overstating the risk factors, and unless BC’s student-athletes have a far more fierce desire to compete than their peers, something else must be in play.
Election-year politics, say the experts, may have some indirect influence on BC’s decision.
But the main driver is the money the football program brings in, an estimated $30 million a year from its membership in the Power 5 Atlantic Coast Conference, which has a billion-plus-dollar, multiyear deal with broadcasting giant ESPN.
When ticket sales (not this year, of course), sponsorships, merchandising, and donor contributions are added, BC is “probably generating at least $50 million a year” off its football program, said Holy Cross professor of sports economics Victor Matheson. Those funds go a long way toward subsidizing the school’s sizable athletic program.
According to the most recently available data (2018-19) from the Equity in Athletics Data Analysis from the US Department of Education, BC football generated $32.3 million in revenue, or 68 percent of the total revenue of the school’s 17 men’s and women’s sports.
The University of Connecticut’s enormously successful men’s and women’s basketball programs generated a combined $17.2 million.
That $32.3 million exceeded the combined revenue from the football programs at UMass, UConn, Harvard, Springfield, Bates, Williams, and Middlebury in the same period.
“It’s just that simple,” said Matheson. “There is no college or university in New England that generates money in athletics at anywhere close to what Boston College is.”
And because football drives that revenue, BC will kick off its 2020 football season against Duke at noon Saturday in North Carolina.
“Football plays because of the money,” said Matheson. “The other fall sports — not BC men’s soccer [which is not playing because the pandemic made it difficult for the Eagles to fill their rosters given their reliance on international players] — go ahead to try to pretend that is generally an athletics decision rather than a decision predicated on football revenue. The football revenue drags along women’s soccer and the other fall sports as unwitting accomplices.”
When asked if factors such as media revenue or ACC membership were weighed against the health and safety of student-athletes, BC athletic director Pat Kraft issued a statement that did not address financial considerations.
“The decision by the 15 ACC institutions to proceed with fall sports follows several months of discussion and scenario planning among league members, the ACC Medical Advisory Group, and medical professionals at Boston College,” Kraft said. "The health, safety and well-being of student-athletes, coaches, and staff is at the forefront of all decisions at all times.
“Our student-athletes want to play. Our health and safety protocols, which include extensive testing, daily symptoms monitoring, and isolation and quarantine procedures for all members of the BC community, have given our student-athletes, coaches, and staff the confidence that we can return to competition safely.”
Kevin Anderson was athletic director at Maryland from 2010-18, a span during which the Terrapins left the ACC for the Big Ten. He has been in the room with both BC president the Rev. William P. Leahy and ACC commissioner John Swofford, and believes that the school’s topmost concern is the well-being of its student-athletes.
Anderson is also under no illusions about the sway that conference membership exerts.
“The money is so powerful; it keeps the industry moving,” said Anderson. “There’s two discussions: How do we continue to keep the industry strong fiscally and how do we protect the student-athletes?
“Being a conference member, and seeing that now four of the five power conferences are playing football, there’s definitely influence coming from other members to participate in this."
Another form of pressure can be gleaned by looking at a US electoral map and the political calendar.
Pat Rishe, director of the sports business program at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, conducted research this summer on the influences that went into decisions by the Power 5 conferences to play football. The findings suggest a number of factors such as money, culture, and regional ideologies that place BC’s stance into even starker contrast with its New England peers.
A significant number of football powerhouses, such as Alabama in the Southeastern Conference, Clemson in the ACC, and much of the Big 12 play in markets without dominant pro sports franchises, which increases fan interest and adds pressure on school, conference, and local decision-makers to play, Rishe’s research shows. This is certainly not the case with BC, which is squarely in a city and region dominated by pro sports franchises.
The initial push for playing college football this fall, said Rishe, came in areas “where college football is king and from schools in states where it’s the only athletic game in town, so BC is certainly an outlier for that and other reasons.”
Also not the case for BC is that it sits in a geographical region where five of the six states are reliably “blue,” or Democratic.
In much of the South and Midwest, where many of the SEC and Big 12 teams play, the Republican party is at its strongest. That President Trump took greater interest in (and credit for) the 180-degree change by the Big Ten this week to play football was seen by many as recognition that it could benefit the president’s reelection effort because so many of the Big Ten members play in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
It also has been noted that the president displayed less outward interest in seeing the Pac-12, whose teams play in predominantly Democratic territory, change its mind about playing football.
The ACC has teams in battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, but the conference made its decision early.
“As we can see, there are political influences and ramifications,” said Anderson. “The money is too great. If there wasn’t money behind this, they would not be playing football.”
Karen Elders, an alum and parent of a current student, believes that BC has done a good job of communicating what it’s doing to protect the student body. She trusts the school’s approach to fall sports is solid and worth trying, even if it will be a fanless experience.
“As a BC parent and also an alumni, fall is a real highlight for the BC campus and you don’t have to be a big sports fan to enjoy the celebratory energy that comes to the campus,” said Elders. “To not be able to be planning Parents' Weekend and tailgating, which all center around home football games — I miss the opportunity to share that on campus, that’s the biggest piece.”