By Dave Ongie, News Editor
On Thursday afternoon, the Southern Conference Council of Presidents made the decision to move all fall conference athletic competition to the spring. The move means ETSU’s football, men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s soccer and volleyball teams will spend this fall in limbo with hopes of competing in the spring provided the situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic allows competition to resume at that time.
“This decision was made with extensive evaluation and conversation,” Southern Conference Commissioner Jim Schaus said on Thursday. “Ultimately, we felt it necessary to ensure the health and safety of student-athletes, coaches and staff. This decision was also supported by the conference’s medical advisory committee.”
During a conference call with local reporters on Friday afternoon, ETSU athletic director Scott Carter said ETSU voted in favor of the decision to move athletic competition to the spring.
“We stood in support of the movement to the spring,” Carter said. “We have been exploring this for quite some time with the advice of our doctors and everyone here at ETSU. There is incredible work that has gone into this. It was a very difficult decision, but in the name of health and safety, it was the right decision.”
While the decision applied to all in-conference competition, the league left the door open for SoCon teams to participate in non-conference competitions this fall. That decision makes it possible for Samford to play a football game at Florida State on Sept. 19, which will reportedly earn the school a $450,000 payout as stipulated in a contract signed in November of 2019.
ETSU was supposed to play a game at Georgia on Sept. 12 that included a $550,000 payout for ETSU’s athletic department. But unlike the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Southeastern Conference adopted a 10-game, conference-only schedule that effectively cancelled ETSU’s trip to Athens. Conversely, the ACC gave its member schools the option of scheduling one non-conference game provided it was played in-state, clearing the way for Florida State’s clash with Samford in Tallahassee.
Carter said on Friday that ETSU has no intention of pursuing another non-conference game this fall, closing the door on the possibility of securing a six-figure payday that would come if ETSU decided to schedule a “guarantee game” against an ACC or Big 12 opponent.
“It’s left up to every school to make their own decision,” Carter said. “All I can say at ETSU is that we believe it’s not safe (to play) in the fall based on medical advice, and therefore, right now we’re not planning to compete in the fall until we hear different from our doctors.
“I’ve honestly got multiple opportunities that if we wanted to go out and build several guarantee games to make a bunch of money playing football, we could try to do that, but I don’t think that’s the right thing to do.”
Needless to say, the loss of $550,000 from the cancelled game against Georgia will have an enormous impact on ETSU’s athletic department. Carter said on Friday that discussions about a potential financial settlement with Georgia were ongoing, and in the meantime, measures were being taken to ensure the long-term financial health of ETSU’s athletic department.
“When the spring sports were suspended and didn’t get played, we were able to save a considerable amount of money,” he said. “We put out the charge – and our head coaches and staff have been phenomenal – if it is not an emergent need right now, we’re going to put it off. There’s going to be a tightening of the belt. Every penny is going to matter.”
But the financial impact of the Southern Conference’s decision extends beyond football stadiums at member schools and out into the towns and regions that surround those facilities. In Johnson City, ETSU’s fall football season is a major economic driver.
Jenna Moore, director of sales with the Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it is difficult to put an exact dollar figure on how much money ETSU football brings in to Johnson City and the surrounding area, but she offered a snapshot of how wide-ranging the impact is and called the economic trickledown effect “massive.”
The impact begins with the loss of five home football games along with other athletic events across the other fall sports that have been postponed. Those events all bring opposing teams and their fans to Johnson City with football accounting for the lion’s share of those tourism dollars.
The lack of football games will translate into the loss of hundreds of hotel room bookings around each of those five home dates, and teams also book banquet space at the hotels they stay at for team meetings and meals. Moore expects the negative impact will also extend to restaurants and bars – particularly downtown and along State of Franklin – that benefit greatly from gameday traffic.
Moore said retailers like Alumni Hall that specialize in ETSU gear will likely feel the impact as fans won’t be as likely to buy new ETSU merchandise with no games to attend. Additionally, grocers will be affected by the lack of tailgating, as will other local businesses that offer supplies for those gatherings.
Even though the decision will have a negative impact on the community and the region, Moore said Johnson City leaders understand why the decision was made.
“While it’s tough to see another cancellation, we understand health and safety of our community is the most important thing,” Moore said. “We’re working hard on recovery efforts and trying to creatively find new ways to bring visitors here safely.”