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College football conferences begin to cancel fall games

Dan Wolken, National Sports Columnist USAToday, joins Yahoo Finance’s The First Trade with Alexis Christoforous and Brian Sozzi to discuss Big Ten conference's decision to not move forward with the college football season this fall.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: The college football season has been sidelined for the fall. The two premier college athletics conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac 12, have each voted to postpone all fall sports. That includes football. Joining us now to discuss what this means for the athletes and the sponsors is Dan Wolken, national sports columnist at "USA Today." Dan, good to see you again.

Reading your article in "USA Today," you say-- I love this quote-- if any other multi-billion dollar business in America were run as poorly as college sports, it would be ripe for a hostile takeover. Tell us what you think about this latest decision.

DAN WOLKEN: Well, it just underscores that there's really no centralized leadership of college sports. The NCAA, Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, have been notably silent over the last week. And largely, it's because the NCAA doesn't control the premier product in college sports, which is college football. College football is run by the conferences.

And as much as they say they work together, that they make decisions in concert, that they consult each other, we've seen over the last month that that is just not really true. Everyone does what's best for themselves. The university presidents in those leagues make decisions on their own. And the Pac 12 and the Big Ten have seen data and talked with their medical experts, who believe that they should not play this football season. So they have already canceled it.

And then meanwhile, you've got presidents in the SEC, the ACC, and the Big 12 were looking at their medical data, their experts. And they're saying we're going to continue toward a season. So, unfortunately, the athletes are the ones who get caught in the middle of this.

And the decision-making process is so scattershot, so unfocused, so inconsistent that it's hard to really build any public trust in what is a key part of American culture.

BRIAN SOZZI: And Dan, what does this mean for student athletes that go to college and they've gotten some pretty big scholarships?

DAN WOLKEN: Well, what's going to happen in the Pac 12 and the Big Ten is that those students are going to be allowed to remain on campus, assuming that those campuses are open to students with local guidelines. They're going to go to school. They're going to continue to be able to train in those facilities. They're going to be able to go to the training table and eat meals.

They're going to be supported in all the same ways that they were supported before. I think that's very important to those schools, because there is a mental health component to this, frankly, that not having football, not having the structure of the season is going to be really difficult for a lot of people. So they need to monitor these athletes and their health very closely, both physically and mentally.

But they've just deemed that it's not safe enough to play. And look, it's a contact sport. Football is not a place where you can be socially distant. If you're playing a season, you're traveling in and out of different states. There's reasons why it certainly makes sense to not play under these circumstances.

But it's going to be difficult to get these young people through this. And they're giving them the hope of trying to play in spring. And so they're going to have to really be careful to monitor and support them these next several months.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Dan, you've got schools like Nebraska talking about breaking away from the Big Ten for this season. Do you think they're setting the stage here the Power Five programs breaking away from the NCAA just as these media rights deals begin to expire?

DAN WOLKEN: The NCAA has long been a target, both of external critics and internal critics, and never more than the last few months during the pandemic, where people have been wanting direction and leadership and have not necessarily gotten it to their satisfaction. Obviously, communication between some of these schools and conferences and the national office has been a complete disaster.

I think breaking away is a different conversation. It's a much heavier conversation. It comes with a lot of complications. And I'm not sure.

It's one of those situations, maybe be careful what you wish for. Because ultimately, if the Power Five break away, then they're going to end up with a bureaucracy that looks and feels very much like the NCAA. And you still have the same sort of schisms and disagreements within the Power Five that they have now.

Having said that, every 10 to 15 years in college sports, you do have this sort of realignment based on conference because television rights deals expire, because people get agitated. They take things personally. Nebraska is obviously very frustrated. They do not agree with the decision that the Big Ten made.

But I think, ultimately, the Big Ten is looking at this and saying we're in this together. We have 100 plus years of solidarity between our core members. Nebraska is a relative newcomer to this.

If they don't like it, then fine. We'll keep that $50 million check that we cut them every year and we'll find another way to deal with it and find another use for it. If Nebraska feels like they can get a better situation somewhere else, they should pursue that.

BRIAN SOZZI: How big is the financial blow to Disney and ESPN?

DAN WOLKEN: Yeah, well, obviously, with the Big Ten, also they're in big business with Fox. They have a partnership in the Big Ten network with Fox. So that's going to hurt.

Look, I mean, the lack of a live sports through the spring, through the summer is a major hit to these big media companies who are trying to broadcast these games and justify these big rights fees that they've paid the conferences. So I'm sure ESPN and ABC are hoping the SEC and the Big 12 can figure out a way to continue to play. We'll see if that's possible, if that's viable.

But same thing with the Big Ten and Fox-- they're going to have to figure out what to do. Now if they can get this thing together and play in the spring, then maybe it's a delayed benefit to everybody, that they can actually show some of these games. But right now, yeah, [SNEEZES], excuse me. It's a big mess.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Dan, what about all the sponsorship dollars? Nike, AT&T, Dr. Pepper, the list goes on-- where are these guys going to go and spend their advertising dollars if there's no college football?

DAN WOLKEN: That's a great question. Look, a lot of these contracts with the schools and with their core sponsorships are tied up in other companies, like Learfield IMG. They have sold a lot of those marketing rights fees to bundling companies. They go sell national ad campaigns and sponsorships.

That's another sort of inter-industry fight that's going to happen all throughout this fall, because those companies, without that inventory to sell, they're going to be hurting as well. They've guaranteed these schools payments, quarterly payments. And they've already asked for time to delay those this summer.

So yeah, I mean, it's a big mess. I mean, the financial ramifications on every level of the college sports industry when you start canceling games, especially football games, are massive.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Dan Wolken, national sports columnist at "USA Today," we appreciate your time.

DAN WOLKEN: No problem. Thank you.