The distance between Columbus, Ohio, and Ann Arbor, Michigan, is just under 200 miles. Although the distance between the cities is rather small, the conversation around the upcoming football season for each university differs greatly.
Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith laid out a potential framework May 20 for what modified game days may look like at Ohio Stadium, including possible crowd limitations and deciding factors on which fans will be allowed into the games. In a conversation with the Wall Street Journal published Sunday, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel expressed his doubts that college athletics will return in the fall while schools around the country continue to weigh the dilemmas surrounding fan attendance in accordance with CDC and state guidelines.
“If there is no on-campus instruction then there won’t be intercollegiate athletics, at least for Michigan,” Schlissel told the journal.
On April 10, Smith also questioned the logic behind having student-athletes playing football if the university came to the decision that it wasn’t safe for students to be on campus.
“It doesn’t make sense, because I know I’m not going to be in charge of putting our kids at risk if the leadership has made the decision that the environment’s not safe,” Smith said in a teleconference with media members.
Smith touched on his discomfort towards having the student-athletes play in front of an empty stadium. However, in the month that followed, Smith has warmed up to that possibility.
“I struggled with it at the beginning,” Smith said May 20. “As I continue to have conversations, I’m becoming more comfortable with it.”
For head coach Ryan Day, the prospect of an empty stadium or a limited crowd would be eerie, but he said that it would be better than the alternative.
“I think any football is better than no football,” Day said in a teleconference April 15. “And so I think again, my thought process in all this is that we need to look at all options. You know, if the ideal situation arises great, but if not, what are we going to do to try to come up with some sort of football keeping everybody safe and healthy?”
Although no decision has been made at a university level, Michigan and Ohio have gone in different directions in terms of the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Ohio has begun its reopening process, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer extended the state’s stay home order to June 12.
In a teleconference with media members May 20, Smith began to project what a potential football game day could look like for Ohio State without losing sight of the safety of the student-athletes.
“Every decision that we’re making as an institution and as an athletic department is built around ensuring that we do what we do with the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and staff,” Smith said.
Ohio Stadium currently has the capacity to seat more than 100,000 fans on game days, but open seats will likely be a theme of the 2020 season. Smith said that Ohio Stadium could see 22,000 to 50,000 fans in the stadium on Saturdays, with the higher end of Smith’s range dependent on relaxed guidelines by the state.
“We’re fortunate with 100,000 seats in the stadium,” Smith said. “So could we implement the current CDC guidelines, the state guidelines, around physical distancing, mask requirements and all those types of things in an outdoor environment and have obviously significantly less fans than what we are used to? I think it’s possible.”
According to Smith, the limited crowd would allow proper social distancing to take place, and it is a process he and his colleagues have explored. Ohio State President Michael Drake said April 23 that the university may at the very least explore adding extra hand washing and sanitizing stations to the stadium.
Gov. Mike DeWine announced March 12 the ban on mass gatherings of 100 people or more. While progress is being made toward larger group settings with Ohio banquet halls being allowed to serve up to 300 guests with proper social distancing practices starting June 1, Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted announced Thursday, a decision on mass gatherings for sporting events has not been made.
Outside of the rivalry, Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard wrote a letter Tuesday informing fans that tickets would only be sold to fill Jack Trice Stadium to 50 percent of its capacity. Pollard noted that 22,000 of the seats have been claimed by season-ticket holders while the remaining 8,000 are open to season-ticket holders that have not yet come to a decision on attending.
Unlike Iowa State’s stance on limited attendance, Smith acknowledged the different groups of people that attend games. Between donors, media, students, and guests of players and coaches, there are many groups that need to be considered when determining the makeup of the reduced crowd with a high priority put on seating the guests of the players and coaches.
“We’d obviously have to look at our point system,” Smith said. “We do have a diversity of constituency throughout our stadium so we have to make sure we look at each individual group.”
In terms of the schedule, Smith said that a decision on the opponents and number of games will be made by early July in order to give as much time as possible for information to be gathered to make the best decision.
“We need to not rush this, and I know everyone is anxious to do that, but we need to have the opportunity for our medical experts to continue to collect data, see how our human behavior responds in the reopening environment across the country,” Smith said.
With that decision pending, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced May 7 that large gatherings including sporting events will not be able to take place in the state until a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19 is in place. The Buckeyes are scheduled to play at Oregon on Sep. 12.
That announcement has fueled speculation on a potential flip of Ohio State and Oregon’s home-and-home agreement, with this season’s game potentially being moved to Columbus. However, Smith said he would be opposed to that idea due to its impact on future Ohio State schedules.
“We’d probably be giving up a [home] game next year,” Smith said. “Which would make it harder for us, so I’m not so sure I would do that.”
Ohio State’s first home game is scheduled for Sept. 5 against Bowling Green, which announced their plans to have students return in the fall May 13.
While the questions surrounding scheduling and crowds are significant, Smith emphasized that the priority will be keeping the student-athletes safe.
“There’s a sequencing of things, and the contractual obligations all are dependent on the ability to play the game in a safe way for our student-athletes,” Smith said. “And after that, for me, everything just rolls from there.”