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Mid-American Conference cancels fall football due to virus

FILE - In this Dec. 7, 2019, file photo, members of the Miami of Ohio team pose on the field after the Mid-American Conference championship NCAA college football game against Central Michigan, in Detroit. The Mid-American Conference on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020, became the first league competing at college football’s highest level to cancel its fall season because of COVID-19 concerns. A person with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press the university president’s voted to not play in the fall and consider a spring season. The person spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because an official announcement was still being prepared.(AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

By RALPH D. RUSSO AP College Football Writer

The Mid-American Conference on Saturday became the first league at college football’s highest level to cancel its fall season because of the pandemic.

“I’m heartbroken we are in this place,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said.

With the MAC’s 12 schools facing a significant financial burden by trying to maintain costly coronavirus protocols, and the uncertainty that campuses can be opened safely, the conference’s university presidents canceled all fall sports — including soccer and volleyball — and said they would explore making them up in the spring season.

A move to the spring, however, could also prove costly without revenue generated by football media rights deals and ticket sales.

“It would be naive to say that you don’t give thought and consideration to what the financial ramifications or any decision are, but this was a health and well-being decision first and foremost,” Steinbrecher said. “As we sit here today we don’t know what this will mean financially and how the rest of the fall plays out.”

He added the decision was unanimous among the membership.

“It’s a bitter one, but we believe it’s the right one based on the medical advice we’ve been getting from our medical advisory board,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten is tapping the brakes on football’s preseason, telling its schools that until further notice full contact practices cannot begin. The conference announced Saturday all teams will remain in the first two days of what is known as the “acclimatization period,” working out in just helmets. The Big Ten regular season is scheduled to start Sept. 5.

“We understand there are many questions regarding how this impacts schedules, as well as the feasibility of proceeding forward with the season at all,” the conference said in a statement. “As we have consistently stated, we will continue to evaluate daily, while relying on our medical experts, to make the best decisions possible for the health, safety and wellness of our student-athletes.”

And more players announced they were opting out of the season, notably Pittsburgh defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman. The junior is a potential early round NFL draft pick who had 10.5 sacks last season. He said he is declaring for the draft.

Steinbrecher said the conference will make every effort to provide opportunities in the spring for fall sports teams and the decision only effects fall sports, not basketball or others that begin in the second semester such as baseball, softball and lacrosse.

MAC schools rely heavily on revenue from road games against power conference teams. Most of those games were canceled when the Power Five went to exclusively or mostly conference games. Kent State alone had more than $5 million in so-called guarantee games canceled. Whether they can be recouped and when is still to be determined. Without that revenue, the strain became too great of trying to keep players and staff safe during a pandemic.

The conference that built a brand name — #MACtion — and managed to score an ESPN deal by playing football games on Tuesdays and Wednesday nights is now the first to surrender to the pandemic.

The MAC’s broadcast rights deal with ESPN with worth about $1 million per year per school, a tiny fraction of what the Power Five conference schools get from their TV contracts — but a significant amount of money for schools that operate with athletic department budgets in the $30 million range.

The move to spring football has already been going on in the second tier of Division I.

Nine of 13 conferences that play in the Championship Subdivision, have already postponed fall football seasons, with an eye toward making them up in the spring. The first was the Ivy League in early July.

But in FBS, conferences have been putting in place plans — however tentative — for the coming season. The Power Five went first. The Southeastern Conference released its revised 10-game conference-only schedule Friday with much fanfare. The so-called Group of Five conferences, with the American Athletic, Sun Belt, Mountain West and Conference USA, completed schedule models this week.

The MAC was the last one without a stated plan. A meeting of its presidents earlier in the week was expected to produce an agreement on how to go about a fall season, but instead some schools pushed to not play.

The final decision was kicked to a Saturday morning meeting. The news, first reported by the online sports network Stadium, started leaking within 90 minutes of the scheduled start of the meeting. The league soon announced a news conference with its commissioner an hour later.

Steinbrecher said the conference’s health experts were uncomfortable with the idea that athletes would be facing a higher level of risk than other students.

“And there’s things that we just don’t completely understand about this virus at this point,” he said. “We’re comfortable that we’re making the right decision for collegiate athletics.”

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