SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey is paddling through unchartered waters as a deadly coronavirus has paralyzed his conference, our country and countless communities.
Without a playbook, Sankey is trying to oversee a league, restart playing games, and make critical decisions in an effort to return to normalcy for 14 colleges and universities in an 11-state footprint.
It’s a daunting task, fighting this invisible enemy.
“None of us in our undergraduate or graduate courses had this particular section or this lesson,’’ Sankey said in an exclusive interview on SportsTalk WNML on Friday. “So we’ve had to build a bridge as we crossed the river and write the manual as we’re doing so.’’
Sankey made the “emotional’’ decision to shutdown the SEC men’s basketball tournament March 12, shut down athletic events until April 15, then May 31.
He watched thousands of athletes not complete their season and thousands more not even start their season.
He realized the negative impact of “pulling them away from the foundation of their lives, their class schedules, their practice schedule, their games or events’’ and the impact of their “mental well being.’’
Sankey has had almost daily conversations with SEC athletic directors and weekly talks with presidents and chancellors. He tasked athletic directors with providing a “clear description of what is going on in your state.’’
As COVID-19 has overtaken the United States (and world) Sankey has seen many milestones go by the wayside: the SEC men’s basketball tournament, the SEC baseball tournament, the national championships for swimming and diving and indoor track and field, and baseball and softball, and the many spring sports that never started.
The SEC Spring Meetings in Sandestin, Fla., were canceled.
The SEC Football Media Days in Atlanta are scheduled for July 13-16. Sankey is hopeful they will be held.
“We’re certainly preparing for that,’’ Sankey said, realizing each day, each week that goes by could shed a different light on the subject.
“I’ve got a team working on `what ifs.’ Like what if this happens in the fall, what do you do with our sports.
“I’ve got a team working with, how do we celebrate the return of our sports, because I think that will be a big deal (starting with soccer, then volleyball, then football).
“We’ve got a team working on media days. Their focus is on the preparation for each of those teams as scheduled.
“Then we go into our contingency thinking. So if we can’t gather together in mid-July, which is (more than 11 weeks away), we have space to make those decisions.
“We want to continue to prepare for what we want to happen, then be guided by circumstances and information so that if we have to adjust, we’ll be ready.’’
Unlike some conferences, the SEC has not had to exercise 10 percent paycuts across the board for SEC office employees.
“That’s a credit to my predecessors,’’ Sankey said. “We’re in good financial position.’’
Sankey said the SEC has worked to cut 12.5% out of the budget for this year. He also said some staff is taking vacation at this time. He also said other staff members are “working busier now’’ than under normal circumstances as they try to deal with questions that are tough right now to answer.
Sankey is aware that not playing football this season would have a devastating impact on the finances of schools and universities and communities.
For example, football derives 67% of the revenue in the athletic department at Tennessee – or an average of over $100 million per year over the past five years. You can bet the amount is similar at Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and several other SEC schools.
The economic impact on the Knoxville area for seven football home games in a season is about $355 million annually – that includes hotels, restaurants and bars, gift shops and some 3,800 jobs.
The football fiscal revenue for 50-plus public schools among the Power Five conferences is $4.1 billion.
Not only does football bring in billions, but many schools donate millions back to the university through revenue gained by the athletic department.
There was a time when Tennessee’s athletic department donated $6 million to UT then sold about 15,000 season tickets to UT at face value and UT turned that into $10 million in donations for the right to buy season tickets.
In other words, not having football would likely cost SEC schools well over $100 million in donations it gets from athletic departments.
Sankey didn’t know an exact amount, but he knows it’s a lot.
“If we’re in a circumstance where we’re unable to play football next fall,’’ Sankey said, “I actually leave the football field and think about campuses. Then I think about our culture and our society.
“So given the economic challenges that now exist that didn’t exist 60 days ago, you play that forward into the fall and if we’re still in this public healthy crisis that prevents these activities, that’s a really big question.’’
In some cases, universities are among the largest employers in a city. You have the game-day impact, the ticket takers, the users, the parking attendants.
Sankey shutters at the thought.
“That’s why I’d rather not deal with hypotheticals,’’ he said. “I focus very specifically on my responsibility and that is to be prepared to play football come Labor Day weekend. That’s a hope I think we need to give people. I can’t promise it, though.’’
Sankey added, with tongue in cheek: “I haven’t had an officiating complaint in five weeks and I miss that, because it came with playing games.’’
Many pro sports have said they would play games without fans in the stands.
Would the SEC?
“I don’t have to answer that question right now,’’ Sankey said, noting he’s got weeks before he has to make that decision.
What you play college football on campus if campuses are not open to students?
“Campuses are certainly the host,’’ Sankey said. “…I do think, fundamentally, activity on campus is one of the important steps we’re going to have to take to bring back college football or college soccer, whatever it may be.
“One of the questions we have to answer with the asset of time right now, what does campus activity look like in the future.’’
What happens if one conference is ready to return to football but another is not? Would that be a conference or NCAA decision?
Sankey noted that the decisions about playing conference basketball tournaments were left up to the individual conferences.
“That’s probably a lesson or example that we are independent identities,’’ Sankey said.
Since then, Sankey said, there has been a “lot of conversation between autonomy conferences. The preference would be to go down the road together.’’
Sankey said the NCAA has a football oversight committee that is considering all options.
“Now, if there is one small niche that is inactive,’’ he said, “but perhaps the entire SEC and others are able to function, that is one of those hypotheticals we don’t have to answer now. But you would think there would be a bit of room in that decision making.’’