MISSOULA — The Big Sky Conference is committed to playing football in the spring, commissioner Tom Wistrcill told the Missoulian and 406mtsports.com in a phone interview Friday.
The confirmation of the decision made by the conference’s Presidents Council in August comes as the Big Ten on Wednesday reversed course to play this fall and the Pac-12 and Mountain West and MAC, all of which are FBS conferences, are reportedly considering following suit.
That raised questions about the possibility of the Big Sky also trying to play in the fall instead of the spring, where the FCS playoffs appear headed after one final vote, giving teams the opportunity to play for a national title then.
“To me, it’s not about the possibility, it’s about the opportunity. Our opportunity is in the spring,” Wistrcill said. “We’ve made that decision. We’re ready to move on and we’re looking forward to a great spring schedule.”
He added that the Big Ten decision “really has no impact on us,” and even if the Pac-12 and Mountain West decided to play in the fall that it wouldn’t change things for the Big Sky because “our goal is to play for and win FCS championships and hopefully win a national title, so that’s what we’re focused in on.”
The NCAA Division I Council on Wednesday approved an FCS playoff model for the spring, running from April 18 through May 15 with 16 teams instead of 24. The NCAA Division I Board of Directors still must approve the playoff format, which will follow a maximum of eight games allowed during the spring regular season, and fall competition will be considered in determining the field.
A host of challenges come with trying to pull off a spring season for the first time, including whether there’s a vaccine, cheaper and more efficient testing, a quick turnaround to playing again in the fall and for the Big Sky specifically, the reality of trying to practice and play in winter weather without indoor facilities at most schools. Wistrcill said he feels “pretty confident” that spring season will be completed through the playoffs.
“I think we’re devoted,” he said. “We’re lockstep together with the other FCS conferences. We’ve got the NCAA on board and then we have time. We’re not talking about trying to play in two weeks or a month or six weeks. We’re talking about five months. I think that’s a really cool thing to have out in front of us and the ability for us to take advantage of that is really exciting.”
So far, no FCS conference has declared an intention to move its conference schedule to the fall, although 15 schools are playing at least one non-conference game in the fall. Montana athletic director Kent Haslam felt there would be more of a push to bring back FCS football to the fall if the Big Sky’s peer conferences were making plans to do that.
“We will not be pursuing a fall conference season,” the Missouri Valley said in a statement to the InForum newspaper in North Dakota on Wednesday. “We remain fully committed to aligning our conference season with the FCS Championship, which as you know, was postponed and moved to the spring.”
Being able to play for an FCS championship is part of what makes a spring season meaningful for Haslam and Montana State athletic director Leon Costello.
“Our focus is on let’s develop our student-athletes right now to be ready for spring so we can put our best foot forward for those eight or nine weeks to compete for a conference title, hopefully qualify for the FCS championship and then compete for a national championship,” Costello said. “That’s really where my focus is. If things change, they change. We can make ourselves ready, but we’re really focused on the spring and the FCS championship.”
Added Haslam: “The championship’s been moved to the spring. You can see that taking shape now. I’d almost rather focus our energies on making that a worthwhile experience than continuing to chase this phantom fall schedule.
“I think that that brings meaning because your student-athletes are competing for something. Certainly, we love to compete just to compete, but also having something that is worthwhile and a national championship and pursuing something like that I think validates the regular season and makes it more meaningful and opposed to let’s just get games in to get games in.”
In another move toward solidifying a spring season, the D-I Council approved a version of “spring football” that could begin as early as Monday. Teams playing in the spring will be able to practice 15 times within a 34-day window and be allowed 20 hours of work a week instead of the 12 hours they’ve been limited to since Aug. 24.
Haslam said UM, which has an unspecified number of student-athletes in various sports in quarantine and isolation, hasn’t set a date to begin football practices. He feels “it won’t be for at least a couple more weeks.”
While the NCAA ruling said teams must have a specific date for their first game before practicing, Wistrcill said his understanding is that teams just have to declare they’re playing in the spring before they can start. He said he expects the conference’s eight-game schedule to begin in late February and to be released in mid to late October.
The Presidents Council initially decided to move conference games to the spring and later decided to cancel nonconference games. Wistrcill said there haven’t been any council meetings about reversing either of those decisions, and when asked if there’s any chance Big Sky teams will play this fall, he said, “I don’t think so.”
“I don’t foresee that happening,” he said. “I don’t foresee there being any changes in that because our teams aren’t practicing right now. … We feel good about where we’re at.”
The Big Sky’s decision to move football to the spring came with the health and safety of players in mind, but finances also played a factor. The NCAA is requiring teams that play to test at least once a week, which Haslam said would cost at least $10,000 each week for Griz football in their summer estimations.
The availability of tests and possibility of getting results quick enough were also in question. Haslam said testing is still “the biggest hurdle” and that UM trying to push the Big Sky to bring football back for the fall isn’t his focus.
“It wouldn’t be my top priority just because we all in this conference are so intimately aware of the challenges that all of our member institutions are faced with and just the difference, eight states, schools dealing with a variety of different resources available for testing for them,” he said. “I think we’ve settled in on this idea that we’re going to try and now play in the spring. “
Testing is becoming more prevalent, prices are coming down, the turnaround time for results is decreasing and the accuracy is increasing. The Big Ten’s decision to play starting next month came partly because daily, rapid-response testing for COVID-19 has emerged for the more money-rich conference, but that may not be in the cards for the Big Sky.
“I think we anticipate the testing will get certainly more prevalent, there will be a lot more tests out there, there will be easier tests, there will also be cheaper tests,” Wistrcill said. “I think all of that impacts our basketball coming up about being able to meet the testing requirements, but for football, I don’t think that has any effect on us staying with the spring.”
Regulations from county and state health departments also must be followed. Missoula is limiting teams to 60 total people per sideline, a number that would have to be increased to accommodate coaches, players, referees, medical personnel and more.
Regulations would also limit the number of people in the stands for both the Griz and Cats, meaning they could potentially lose money from putting on football games. UM and MSU rely on ticket sales more than any other Big Sky teams. UM pulled in about $4.8 million in football ticket sales in Fiscal Year 2019 out of about $5.6 million in ticket sales for all sports. MSU was second at about $3.3 million overall, while third-place Weber State is at $929,000.
Unlike the Big Ten, the SEC and other Power Five or Group of Five leagues, the Big Sky doesn’t have a lucrative TV deal that provides its schools with multi-million-dollar payouts each year, which could help make up for lost revenue due to limited or no attendance. Haslam previously mentioned the potential for a pay-per-view model over the summer.
“If we played in the fall, we’re not going to be able to have the fans in the stands that are going to be able to get us over the hump, and really our costs will rise exponentially by playing and not being able to generate any of that revenue,” Costello said. “I think by waiting we give ourselves more time. We’ve seen a lot of things change in the last 60 days.
“By giving us time, going into February, we’re hopeful that we keep changing in a positive direction that we’re able to have more people in the stands, that will help us, one, them being able to enjoy the game but also generate some revenue in ticket sales that we’re going to be able to meet the financial requirements of being ready to play and testing being part of that.”
Along with the championship moving, Haslam noted that the NCAA’s decision to provide fall sports athletes with an extra year of eligibility may make a spring season more digestible for the athletes.
If they didn’t get that extra year, seniors may not have wanted to end their careers with a shortened spring season. But Haslam felt being allowed to play this fall because of seniors’ desires might not have been possible because of issues surrounding testing.
“If there was not that extension of eligibility and the extension of a student-athlete’s clock, then there’s a feeling of they’ve only got so many years to play, they’ve only got so many games they can compete in, this is a limited time in their life, let’s give them those chances,” Haslam said. “But with the championship now in the spring, with the challenges on testing, with county-by-county health regulations that are so different in different states, why try and push this to the fall when you now see something that you can do in the spring that would matter.”