The Pac-12 is hurtling toward a significant policy reversal after the athletic directors agreed this week to allow non-conference games if a league matchup is canceled because of COVID-19 issues, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the discussions.
However, the change requires approval from the presidents and chancellors, who had previously banned non-conference games for the 2020 season.
The presidents discussed the issue on Tuesday, sources said, but it is not known whether a vote was taken.
The ability to play non-conference games would help fill vacancies if an odd number of teams are healthy enough to compete in a given week.
The Pac-12 has already canceled five games, largely because of outbreaks at Utah and Arizona State.
“It doesn’t mean we will play one,’’ a source said of the non-conference option. “We just want that flexibility.”
Currently, there is none.
Most teams were prepared to open the season on Oct. 31, but because several California schools needed more time, the presidents established Nov. 7 as the conference-wide restart date — two weeks later than the Big Ten and even the Mountain West.
The desire for unity resulted in a master schedule that featured six games in six weeks prior to the conference championship game on Dec. 18.
In other words: The only window for makeup dates is Dec. 19 — the day after the championship.
Add the ban on non-conference games, and precious Saturdays have the potential to slip away if an opponent cannot play.
“It’s stressful if you don’t have somebody,’’ a source said. “What if three teams are out?”
Or what it one team is left out, which could be the case this week.
Colorado is currently in limbo after the cancellation of its game at ASU. If the other five matchups are played as scheduled, the Buffaloes would be healthy but have no opponent.
Unless they could step outside the conference.
“That is definitely on the table,” a source said, “especially where it geographically or historically makes sense.”
In addition to the loss of competition, an idle week for any team likely would mean a loss of revenue for the conference.
Each game televised by ESPN or Fox is worth approximately $5 million — or about $425,000 per school.
The amount paid for a non-conference game might vary, but it would be substantial for athletic departments feeling the impact of the shortened season and no ticket sales.
“We want maximum flexibility for our schools,’’ said a source, who added that the athletic directors were unified on the matter. “The group was very supportive.”
Will their bosses agree?
Along with their peers in the Big Ten, the Pac-12’s presidents and chancellors voted in early July to play a conference-only season.
At the time, they were concerned that differences in health-and-safety standards across conferences could place Pac-12 teams at risk if opponents didn’t have adequate protocols in place.
Those differences remain: Each conference has its own standards.
However, the access to daily antigen testing, which wasn’t foreseen in July, greatly reduces the risk.
In addition, there are no known instances — anywhere — of on-field transmission of the virus, according to Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s Chief Medical Officer.
“We have seen zero evidence of transmission player-to-player on the field, either during games or practices, which I think is an important and powerful statement,’’ Sills told Sports Illustrated last week.
“And it also confirms what other sports leagues have found around the world. We regularly communicate with World Rugby, Australian rules football, European soccer leagues.
“To date, no one has documented a case of player-to-player transmission in a field sporting environment.”
The non-conference option could add a layer of complexity to the Pac-12 schedule, however.
For example, what if Colorado agreed to play a non-conference game, but a second Pac-12 matchup was canceled the next day — leaving the healthy team without an opponent.
To account for that possibility, sources said, stipulations could be built into the agreements allowing Pac-12 teams to back out without penalty.
Non-conference games aren’t the only topic of discussion between the athletic directors and conference office, according to sources.
They’re also examining how the Pac-12 will prioritize matchups if an odd number of teams need games.
Again, the issue is best conveyed with an example:
At one point late last week, Cal needed a game (because ASU couldn’t play), UCLA needed a game (Utah couldn’t play) and Washington was concerned it would have an opening because of player quarantine issues at Oregon State.
Ultimately, the Beavers were able to make the trip to Seattle. But had they canceled, how would the conference have chosen which of the three healthy teams (Washington, UCLA or Cal) would not compete.
Multiple sources said preference should be given to division games.
In the example above, Cal and Washington likely would have been paired, with UCLA left without an opponent.
However, there is no official conference policy on the issue. And it might stay that way.
“We plan to maintain the position of maximum flexibility for conference office scheduling decisions,’’ a source said.
“The timing of cancellations, in addition to a myriad of operations data, will play determining factors in any scenario with three teams available to play due to game cancellations.”
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