Rooney: Eventual return of sports might usher in a whole new world

Budget, personnel cuts won’t be easily recouped

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Fans storm the field after Colorado defeats Utah on Nov. 26

Move forward a few years, in a best case scenario, and what do we see with NCAA athletics?

First and foremost, hopefully this future setting presents a virus-free world in which games played in packed houses once again is a norm sports fans take for granted. The new Ralphie is a grizzled veteran, Karl Dorrell has the Buffaloes in perennial contention in the Pac-12 South, and Tad Boyle has surpassed Sox Walseth as CU’s all-time leader in basketball wins while notching a few of those elusive victories in the NCAA Tournament.

In Buff Nation, life has never been better. But normal? There is a good chance the new normal in NCAA athletics will not resemble the one abandoned in March amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

CU athletic director Rick George took to the virtual airwaves this past week to address Buff Nation in the latest of his video updates. George, of course, expresses optimism. He also hints at the fact that things may never be the same. And at the very least the 2020-21 athletic calendar, even if the games are held as scheduled, will be unlike anything sports fans have ever experienced.

“I’m excited about where we’re going in the fall,” said George, with the backdrop of an empty Folsom Field perhaps providing some unintentional foreshadowing. “It’s really unclear about what that’s going to look like. But what I can tell you is that it’s going to be different than it’s ever been. We’re going to be really focused on the fan experience. We do hope we’re playing sports in the fall. And if we do, our goal is to provide a world class experience for you.”

Half-full stadiums, at best, almost assuredly will be the norm this fall, but what about beyond 2020? Regardless of what medical practices become the norm once (or if) the spread of the coronavirus is curtailed, it’s fair to wonder if up to 50,000-plus fans will be willing to cram themselves into Folsom Field — or any stadium or arena — in the years to come. College football already had been dealing with an attendance lag across the board. Once personal health concerns are added to the list of pros as to why the fan experience often is more fulfilling watching from living rooms, it will be challenging to reverse that trend.

As everyone knows, once the financial windfall from football is compromised, more dominoes are certain to fall. CU already has attempted to stem some of the future financial bleeding, with four employees laid off and another resignation thinning the ranks of the athletic department. Furloughs have hit the athletic department as well.

George has been consistent in his stance of not wanting to cut athletic programs. Yet if the football season is significantly compromised, that fate may eventually be unavoidable. Once jobs and teams are wiped from the ledger, simply kicking off a football game in an empty stadium won’t be nearly enough to bring them back.

Beyond the financial basics, how sports are consumed, in-person or otherwise, might also evolve into a new normal. Socially-distanced press boxes are one thing, but in the foreseeable future even postgame interviews may be handled virtually, from press box to locker room. Same with play-by-play broadcasts handled from a studio, which already isn’t an entirely new concept. Add travel restrictions and budget concerns to that equation, and it’s not inconceivable those football broadcast booths might eventually be repurposed into suites. Which in the new reality might provide the safest seats in the house.

Hopefully, athletic competition will return sooner than later. What it all will look like is anyone’s guess.