C-USA story

North Texas coach Seth Littrell answers questions during Conference USA media days last summer in Frisco. C-USA is still considering its options for a fall sports season.

Conference USA is evaluating options for a fall sports season as leagues across the country are taking drastic measures, including canceling nonconference games, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are continuing to discuss with our membership, but no decisions have been made,” Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod said in a statement provided to the Denton Record-Chronicle late Thursday night. “We are receiving advice from medical experts and examining all options.”

Judy MacLeod

Judy MacLeod

The Ivy League announced Wednesday that it will not have any of its teams play until January.

The Big Ten said Thursday that it will only play conference games this fall in football and all other sports. The Pac-12 followed with a similar announcement Friday night.

The ACC is also expected to cancel nonconference football games, according to Brett McMurphy of Stadium. The league released a statement from commissioner John Swofford on Friday saying the league would make a decision later this month.

College sports were shut down in March due to the spread of COIVD-19. C-USA was forced to call off its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments following first-round games.

The league later canceled its spring sports season and spring football practice.

The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were called off shortly after the C-USA tournaments.

Losing the nonconference portion of the football schedule would result in a significant financial hit for C-USA’s programs that are already reeling after the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was canceled. The NCAA reduced its payout to member schools from $600 million to $225 million after losing the event that is one of its biggest revenue sources.

UNT athletic director Wren Baker estimated shortly after the NCAA tournament was canceled that UNT would lose up to $2.5 million in revenue due to the pandemic.

Nonconference football games are a significant source of revenue for several schools that compete outside of the Power Five leagues. Seeing those games canceled would add to the financial impact of the pandemic for UNT and other C-USA schools.

North Texas is slated to receive a $1.25 million payout for playing at Texas A&M on Sept. 12.

Several other C-USA teams are scheduled to play high-profile nonconference football games this fall. UTSA is set to open the season at LSU on Sept. 5 and will reportedly receive a $1.4 million payment. Southern Miss will receive $1.85 million to play at Auburn on Sept. 26, per reports.

UNT has significantly improved its fundraising efforts under Baker. The school announced in December that it raised $4.6 million in 2018-19. That fundraising haul came on the heels of a record $8.9 million UNT raised in the fiscal year that ended in the fall of 2017.

UNT has been able to reduce its dependence on nonconference payday games as a result.

Losing the nonconference football season would add financial pressure when it comes to UNT’s bottom line, though, especially after the NCAA tournament was canceled.

“We want to play a fall sports season,” Baker said this week during a taped interview that was part of UNT’s summer coaches’ caravan. “It would be detrimental if we don’t, but what would be most detrimental is if we lost the momentum that has been created in our athletic department.”

Baker emphasized that the school needs its fans and boosters to continue supporting UNT athletics by purchasing season tickets and donating to the Mean Green Scholarship Fund. The fund covers UNT’s scholarship costs and helped pave the way for a breakout season for the program in 2019-20, when its men’s basketball team won the C-USA regular season title and its women’s soccer team won the conference tournament.

C-USA made a series of moves earlier this year to cut costs in the far-flung league and offset losses caused by the pandemic. Those moves included reducing the number of teams that will play in the postseason as well as conference games in multiple sports.

The most significant move is reducing the number of teams that qualify for the league’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments from 12 to eight.

Other cuts include reducing the tournament field in volleyball from eight to four, with the top-seeded team hosting the event. The regular season will be reduced from 14 to 13 games.

The number of regular season games in women’s soccer will be cut from 10 to six, while the number of conference games in softball will be trimmed from 24 to 15. Reducing the conference slate will allow teams to schedule more games within their regions, reducing travel costs.

The travel squads in track and field, cross country and swimming will also be reduced.

C-USA also did away with its bonus-play format in men’s basketball in May. The scheduling concept was designed to boost the schedule strength of the league’s top teams in the hope its champion would be seeded higher in the NCAA tournament. The format required the final four games of each team’s regular season schedule be determined based on the conference standings after the first 14 games in league play. The format allowed the top teams in C-USA to face each other in the closing days of the season.

League officials determined the bonus-play structure wasn’t beneficial and boosted travel costs.

“Like our peers, Conference USA has made exploring effective financial options for our membership’s consideration a top priority as we navigate these unprecedented times,” MacLeod said in late April before the changes were implemented.

The spread of COVID-19 has continued to impact college athletics since that time and caused the Big Ten and Pac-12 to make the drastic move of cutting nonconference play this fall. The option is on the table for C-USA as league officials consider their next move.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

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