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Overreaction Monday: The Lasting Impact of COVID-19 on College Athletics

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We’re just beginning to see the effects of the coronavirus on college sports. It’s going to be a long time before we feel the full impact.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Maryland
The coronavirus cost Fran McCaffery a lot of money and some potential street cred.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The current global situation is maddening. Like a good portion of the US population, I’ve been essentially boarded up in my house for the last week. Three weeks ago, that would have sounded incredible. Plenty of food and beverages in the fridge, more basketball than you can handle on TV and time with the family would have been just what the doctor ordered.

But that’s not what this patient received. Instead, there’s no basketball. There’s no sports whatsoever. My family has picked up more grocery orders in a week than we typically do in a month. And because of the global pandemic, I’m working roughly 17 hours a day from the comfort of my unfinished basement with three kids under the age of five bursting at the seems to do ANYTHING with dad.

It’s less than ideal.

It’s also not going to get any better any time soon. Sports aren’t coming back for weeks, maybe months. I won’t be back in my office for just as long. The work itself isn’t dying down until the entire world is out of the woods. As long as I’m home and not in the office, that grocery bill isn’t getting smaller and until we get some better weather those kids aren’t getting a single ant out of their pants.

We’re going to feel the ripple effects of this for years. In college sports, which is presumably why you’re here, this global pandemic is going to create winners and losers. It’s too early to know for sure which Iowa will be, but what’s clear is it will have a meaningful and lasting impact on Hawkeye athletics.

Most obviously, the basketball and wrestling teams are feeling the pain. The Hawkeyes wrestlers were set to win their first national title in a decade to cap an incredible season that came a year early. The coronavirus cost Iowa a national championship and a chance at going back-to-back. It cost Brands and company the cache that brings on the recruiting trail and six figures in bonus money he would have been owed.

Spencer Lee lost his chance at history. He was on track to become only the fifth wrestler to ever win four NCAA titles. He was a virtual lock to get his third this year. Now, after years of preparation, that’s been taken from him. The NCAA is still considering giving an extra year of eligibility to spring sports participants, but that does nothing for Lee or the Hawkeye program that would have benefited from selling a 4-time champion to recruits and donors alike.

Iowa basketball, while not losing out on a likely national championship, will also feel some major pain thanks to COVID-19. Like Tom Brands, Fran McCaffery missed out on thousands of dollars in incentives by not having a chance at either a Big Ten title or the NCAA Tournament. Luka Garza lost an opportunity to put his skills on full display in front of a national tv audience a few more times before voting for the national player of the year would have started. Bakari Evelyn lost his only chance at playing in the NCAA Tournament in his five year career.

But the impacts will be much greater. By not playing in the NCAA Tournament, Fran lost a recruiting chip. He lost a chance to prove himself by making Iowa’s first run to a Sweet Sixteen in more than two decades. With what is projected to be a very good team next year, he lost an opportunity at back-to-back-to-back Tournament appearances. Those things hurt on the trail. They hurt in fan perception (there are at least a few of you loving that “Fran didn’t win a single game in March”) and they hurt the budget when donors aren’t riding the wave of a tournament run.

Fran was one of the fortunate ones who had his recruiting class lined up, however. Trying to ink a late commit or woo a graduate transfer without the ability to go visit them or bring them to campus would be a nightmare. It’s certainly going to impact Iowa, and everyone’s ability to recruit the class of ‘21. It’s going to cost some late bloomers a chance at a scholarship. The star prospects are already well known and highly sought after. But somewhere, an Aaron White or Gabe Olesani or CJ Fredrick is going to miss out on a scholarship from a power 6 program because their AAU schedule will be disrupted. They aren’t going to have that breakout weekend against a top team. Maybe that helps an evaluator like Fran, maybe it helps the UNIs of the world. It’s too early to tell. But it will be a lasting impact.

And it doesn’t end with the winter sports. Iowa football was set to kick off spring practice on Wednesday. That’s not happening. It’s unclear if it will happen at all. Those early enrollees who worked hard for 3.5 years of high school to graduate early and get a head start on college life and learning the system? They did it all for nothing. Those guys lower on the depth chart looking for every rep to grow and develop? They’re getting none. In a developmental program like Iowa, that’s devastating.

The football staff, despite landing a commitment last week, isn’t out on the trail. They aren’t pounding the pavement in Indianapolis or Detroit or any of the other fertile grounds they’ve made inroads over the last several years but have to fight for every inch. They’re texting and calling but their faces aren’t there. And the recruits aren’t in Iowa City either. Iowa postponed a number of junior visits to give high priority prospects an opportunity at more one-on-one time with the staff and team during spring ball. Those visits are on hold.

The strategy that’s led to Iowa’s gradual rise up the national recruiting rankings since the implementation of the early signing period will be flipped on its head. That June visit day that’s led to so many commitments in each of the last several classes may not happen. If it does, the hit rate is sure to be much lower with prospects having fewer on campus and in person visits with the staff. As we’ve seen, good or bad recruiting classes, which is not strictly defined as national ranking but by team and cultural fit which will be more difficult to vet without spring visits, can determine the success of the program for several years.

We’ve also seen the impact wealthy donors can have on the long term success of an athletics department. Programs like Oklahoma State and Oregon were built on enormous donations from wealthy benefactors. While Iowa doesn’t have a Phil Knight or Boone Pickens, it takes enormous amounts of private donations to fund things like the North End Zone Renovation or the new wrestling practice facility. Wealthy donors at Iowa and across the country are feeling the impact of coronavirus every day. If you’ve looked at your retirement account the last three weeks, you’re feeling it as well. That will leave a lasting impact on athletic departments around the country. Facilities upgrades will be put on hold, scholarship funds for non-revenue sports will be underfunded and recruiting budgets will be smaller.

More accurately, budgets in general will be smaller. The Big Ten’s cut of NCAA Tournament money certainly isn’t going very far this year. The Big Ten Tournament revenue isn’t there either. Those are line items that help keep the lights on at conference institutions who’ve been caught in the arms race of spending nearly every dollar they make. When paired with the inevitably lower donations and the potential lost ticket revenue for average Joe Iowa fan who is losing hours at their job, customers at their store or their livelihood altogether, and it’s not just some coach’s travel budget that’s going to likely be cut for some athletic departments. We’ve already seen a corporate bowl sponsor pull back and we’re just on the front end of the economic impacts this pandemic is having.

We’re all yearning for the days when we can again turn on the TV and enjoy live sports. We need that normalcy back in our lives and we need the escape from the realities we face. But that day isn’t coming soon. Normal isn’t coming soon. The coronavirus is wreaking havoc on the sports world in ways we’re just starting to understand. It’s frightening, it’s frustrating and it’s maddening. But if we’re ever getting back to normal, we all have to do our part. It’s not the time to pick sides, be stubborn or make things political. It’s time to follow published guidelines, wash hands frequently, avoid traveling, practice social distancing and do all the things that are making life difficult right now. We’re going to get through this, whatever this is. The faster we all band together to ride it out, the more we can limit the impact this virus has. And we know it will be profound.

Stay safe Hawkeye fans. And keep everyone else safe too.