MAC becomes first FBS conference to cancel 2020 college football season for the fall

The Mid-American Conference (MAC) officially canceled its 2020 college football season on Saturday because of concerns about the health and safety of its players amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the 12-member league will become the first FBS conference to decide not to play this fall.

The MAC’s decision to not play this fall extends to all sports. The conference intends on attempting to play a football season — along with the rest of the conference’s fall sports — in spring 2021. Winter sports are unaffected by the decision, MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said in a press conference. 

“There are simply too many unknowns to put our student-athletes into situations that are not clearly understood,” Steinbrecher said. “… It’s not the easy decision, but it was the right decision.”  

When asked if there was any resistance to the decision, Steinbrecher told reporters that the decision to postpone all fall sports was unanimous.

The school presidents representing the MAC were expected to vote on whether to play in 2020 on Saturday morning after initially planning earlier in the week to meet about finalizing a scheduling format for the season. It was reported throughout the week that Northern Illinois and its president, Lisa Freeman, had been pushing the league not to play at all with NIU reportedly suggesting it would not compete even if the MAC decided to build a schedule with the intent to compete in the fall.

NIU has been one of the MAC’s best programs since it rejoined the league in 1997, competing in eight conference championships games. It is the MAC’s most accomplished team over the last 10 years, winning four MAC titles out of seven title game appearances since 2010.

UConn became the first FBS team to decide against playing college football in fall 2020 on Thursday. It is an independent program unaffiliated with a conference.

While the MAC has canceled its fall season due to health and safety, there were also financial concerns as the conference was hit hard by the Big Ten’s decision to play conference-only games this season. There were 11 Big Ten vs. MAC nonconference games scheduled in 2020 with payouts to MAC schools set to approach nearly $11 million in those games alone. Games against other Power Five schools were also canceled, leaving just five “money” games for the entire league.

Many athletic departments count on those big-money games against Power Five opponents to cover operating costs each season. Additionally, private COVID-19 testing is expensive and even abiding by the minimum standard of one test per week could cost programs significant sums of money over the course of a season.

Though Steinbrecher insisted his league would play college football in 2020 despite losing those games, the coronavirus pandemic has not eased or shown significant signs of improvement over the last month. 

Now, the MAC faces a new concern — losing its best players. There is growing worry across the league that, should the Power Five and other conferences go on with fall seasons, some of the league’s top players could transfer particularly as other players across the country are opting out of the season altogether.

Multiple FCS conferences have already canceled college football for the fall, and neither Division II nor Division III football will stage fall championships in any sports. Division I will make that decision for the FCS at some point, though that will not affect the FBS, which competes in the College Football Playoff outside Division I or NCAA purview.

However, the MAC canceling its fall season may become a tipping point for the FBS. Will other Group of Five conference make similar decisions? Will the Power Five face growing pressure from its peers’ decisions to pull the plug?

“I have great faith in all of our colleagues across this enterprise,” said Steinbrecher. “They’ll do what’s in the best interests of their student-athletes, coaches and communities.”

Only time will tell as the 2020 college football season approaches.

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