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The NCAA needs to figure out what “ready to play” looks like

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The source of frustration for a lot of fans: nobody knows when sports will come back.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Tournament Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

One source of frustration right now for a lot of sports fans is the reality that not only are sports gone and nobody knows when they will be coming back, but nobody really has an idea of what has to happen before sports can come back.

There was, at the very least, some good news on that last front from MLB yesterday. MLB is in kind of a unique spot among sports leagues, because the season hadn’t actually started before everything was shut down. Truncating a season in advance is a lot easier and more palatable for involved parties than, say, the NCAA cutting March Madness down to 16 teams on the fly would have been.

But as Jeff Passan reported yesterday, MLB has agreed with its players for what all has to happen for the season to begin.

That’s a pretty good framework.

Of course, one important difference between the NCAA and MLB (or any of the other professional sports leagues) is that the NCAA doesn’t necessarily need everybody to play. In fact, World War II already provides a decent precedent for not everybody playing. For instance, only four SEC schools even fielded a team in 1943, and Vanderbilt didn’t field one in 1944. In short, the NCAA has the possibility open that some schools or conferences could sit out the season while others play.

That’s important, because the financial realities for the SEC and other Power Five conferences are quite a bit different than, say, the Division III Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC.) Which brings us to our first question...

Are we okay with playing with no fans in attendance?

Because that’s the first question that needs to be answered in order to come up with a realistic timetable. There exists a possibility that we get into August and we’re at a point where having a couple hundred carefully screened people playing a football game is okay, but cramming 85,000 yahoos into a stadium is maybe not a great idea. If that’s the case, do we wait for the fans or no?

This is one place where differing realities may lead to different approaches. At small colleges and in non-revenue sports, attendance is negligible and often free anyway, so holding a match in an empty gym (or tennis center, or what have you) is an obvious solution — but then again, the ODAC doesn’t have millions of dollars in TV revenue at stake in its decision of whether or not to play. Meanwhile, Power Five schools have a lot of television money at stake — on the other hand, the revenue from attendance isn’t exactly negligible, either. There are a lot of incentives to play because of television, but also quite a few reasons to wait for the fans.

But that comes with the caveat that they may have to wait a while for the fans to come back. One plausible timeline has it being relatively safe to play games in September, but not be safe for large crowds until 2021. That’s why the question of playing without fans has to be answered before anything else.

Obviously, travel restrictions can’t be in place.

If there are shelter-in-place orders in effect in the fall, obviously, football isn’t happening (fans or not.)

But safe travel is another matter — and another place where different schools and conferences may come to different conclusions. At the highest levels of college football, most teams are traveling on charter jets anyway, which seems a lot less risky than flying commercial would be.

How much preparation time is needed?

Now, this is the question that a lot of people aren’t asking. For football season to start, a lot of restrictions may have to be lifted well before September. Most football players are on campus in June, with a month or two of (technically optional) weight training followed by a month or so of fall practice.

Of course, that’s what it looks like in order to achieve peak athletic performance. There’s a slight difference between “peak athletic performance” and “less than peak athletic performance, but not dangerous to your health, either.” Programs have apparently decided they need an entire summer to get ready for the season, but can they survive on maybe a month in the weight room followed by two weeks of fall practice? (Probably.)

My best guess: this will look quite a bit like the World War II era.

Except, obviously, without all the various “Pre-Flight” teams.

The Power Five conferences, if I had to guess, are going to figure out a way to play the season unless either a government entity literally tells them they can’t or else medical professionals are strongly advising against it. (If the NFL is playing, the Power Five is going to play, too.) Smaller schools will probably approach this a bit differently, because travel not being on charter jets means that there may be some additional logistical issues relating to travel — and fewer financial reasons to play if it isn’t safe to do so.

One small advantage for FBS football is that the postseason isn’t run by the NCAA — meaning that the NCAA doesn’t need to make a decision. But schools and conferences figuring out what all needs to happen before they can play is a good first step.