It appears that the college football season just might start on time. That’s real progress, because a couple months ago that scenario did not seem very likely.
But with just under three months until the kickoff of the 2020 season, one of the more significant questions that remains is to what extent fans will be permitted to attend the games.
The scenarios are all over the map. Literally.
The Texas governor has already approved stadiums at 50 percent of capacity. Purdue president Mitch Daniels said recently that he doesn’t expect Ross Ade Stadium to be more than 25 percent full this fall.
That is just a preview of how things might go this season when the season kicks off. Unless conferences intervene and set rules, at the extreme one Big Ten school could play all of its home games in front of no fans, while another plays before capacity crowds. A mandate by the league doesn’t seem likely, because the schools will be guided in large part by directives from their respective states.
Perhaps the only thing the Big Ten could do is set the standard at the level of the most restrictive state. And that wouldn’t be a solution that any of the league’s financially challenged athletic departments would be enthusiastic about.
What does it mean for Indiana?
Of course state-by-state and school-by-school decisions will ultimately rule the day, but let’s have some fun and speculate.
The IU football program has a relatively small fan base compared to many of its peers in the Big Ten.
While there is a loyal foundation of season ticket holders, the home crowd at Memorial Stadium isn’t viewed as a major contributing factor in the outcome of games. At least not like it is at places like Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska, for example.
Fan support can obviously change over time with sustained success. We saw that during the height of the Bill Mallory era. But right now it simply is what it is.
As a percentage of capacity, Indiana’s attendance ticked up slightly in 2019 in connection with its eight win season. But IU also hosted Ohio State and Michigan, two programs with a strong contingent of traveling fans.
The bottom line — Indiana relies less on the home crowd for its success than other programs. Fewer fans in the stands at Memorial Stadium this fall likely wouldn’t drastically diminish the outlook for home success for IU.
Incoming Director of Athletics Scott Dolson doesn’t know yet how many fans will be allowed to attend games this fall.
While IU is selling season tickets, they also have a plan in place to provide refunds as the situation unfolds.
For now, Dolson and his staff are preparing for all of the possible scenarios and contingencies.
“You hope that it is normal, but you have to prepare as if it is not, and we’ve got 29 areas that we’ve identified that we have to come up with a plan in each of these areas from a social distancing standpoint, Dolson said last week on podcast with Don Fischer.
“What we are doing is we want to make certain that our fans are confident that we’ve got the plan in place from a health and safety standpoint.”
Indiana is traveling to some of the more iconic stadiums in the Big Ten in 2020. Places like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State.
If the crowds at those venues are significantly under capacity, could the Hoosiers gain an advantage?
Of course less fans won’t bridge whatever talent gap might exist, but it can’t hurt, right?
Michigan and Ohio State routinely draw more than 100,000 fans. If their attendance is cut in half, for example, that is obviously 50,000 less fans at the game, perhaps with voices muffled by masks.
If Indiana was forced to only permit half of its 52,626 capacity to be utilized, that might mean just roughly 16,000 less fans at Memorial Stadium based on last season’s 42,783 average attendance.
That’s a significant difference in the financial impact to the schools as well.
To be sure, IU has several home games that will be challenging. At the top of the list would be Penn State, Michigan State and Purdue. The Hoosiers could no doubt benefit from more fans in the stands.
And no one wants to see Indiana pull of a road upset that goes down in history with a pandemic asterisk.
We’ve come this far in three months to the point where college football seems likely to start on time.
Perhaps in three more months the stars will align and we will see full stadiums.
But all things being equal, if Big Ten teams go with less than capacity crowds in 2020, it should do IU less harm on the field than most others.
INDIANA’S 2020 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
Sept. 4 – at Wisconsin (game moved to Friday night)
Sept. 12 – Western Kentucky
Sept. 19 – Ball State
Sept. 26 – at Connecticut
Oct. 10 – Maryland
Oct. 17 – at Rutgers
Oct. 24 – Michigan State
Oct. 31 – Penn State
Nov. 7 – at Ohio State
Nov. 14 – Illinois
Nov. 21 – at Michigan
Nov. 28 – Purdue
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