When college football conferences like the Big 10 and Pac 12 announced the suspension of their seasons until the spring at the earliest, most thought it was because they were looking out for players’ health issues. On Monday, ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura did a deep dive into the real impetus behind the delays. The rationale could be more about the fans in the stands than the student-athletes on the field.
The worry, the analyst posits, centers around who is going to be attending games as a spectator, and then where they go when the college football contests are over.
In order to support his argument, he first talked about a mid-February soccer match in Italy. Nearly 2,500 men, women and children traveled to the match, blending into a total attendance of 44,236. Weeks later, the match was labeled a “super-spreading event,” leading to outbreaks in both Spain and Italy.
ESPN talked to over a dozen epidemiologists about the role college football could play in making the coronavirus pandemic even worse this fall. They focused on three 2019 matchups as their models. One of those was Nebraska vs. Ohio State.
The goal was to see how fan dispersal after the final whistle could affect the surrounding areas. The study really started six hours after kickoff. More than 89,000 fans watched the Cornhuskers lose to the Buckeyes 48-7 and then traveled to more than 30 counties in the surrounding region. Eighteen hours after kickoff, the potential spread has reached Denver and Chicago.
A full day after the Huskers game, people who were at Memorial Stadium could be traced all the way to Florida, Oregon, and Connecticut. The experts said it’s the mixing and spreading that is the big worry, even if there is limited attendance this fall.
“I know people like to call them mass gatherings, but for an epidemiologist, these are mass-mixing events,” one expert said. “You essentially come in, a handful of people who may be infected get to mix with more individuals than they would otherwise mix with, who can then go back to multiple places.”
The Big Ten, which postponed its 2020 season on August 11, ranked second in the country in 2019 when it came to attendance. A combined 6,311,298 fans went to 97 games last year.
When commissioner Kevin Warren made his announcement, he said there was “too much medical uncertainty and too many unknown health risks” regarding COVID-19.
Bonagura said he believes college football players were certainly part of the consideration. Yet, when Warren and other commissioners thought about whether college football should be played, especially when most schools were talking about having at least some supporters attending, they might have decided the more widespread risk was even greater.