But big-time college football is a largely decentralized sport, with the N.C.A.A. having only limited authority, and responses to the pandemic are fragmented on everything from testing protocols to start dates.
Some conferences, like the Southeastern, shrank schedules and pushed the first games of their football seasons deeper into September, a decision that some university officials said would allow them to assess the pandemic’s course once more students returned to campuses.
The Big Ten said on Wednesday that it would attempt to start its conference-only slate on Sept. 3, when Ohio State is to play at Illinois. Under the conference’s current plan, the regular season will end on Nov. 21, one week earlier than originally intended, and the league’s championship game will be held, as long scheduled, on Dec. 5 in Indianapolis.
Still, the jigsaw puzzle that is a conference football schedule is far more pliable than normal. The start of the Big Ten’s season could be moved to three other weekends in September, and the title game could be played as late as Dec. 19.
Indeed, the league pointedly noted in a statement that “issuing a schedule does not guarantee that competition will occur” and that it was prepared to cancel games.
“While this seems like a step in the right direction to the return of collegiate athletics, I can’t help but feel conflicted knowing that even in the best-case scenario, our return to football will be nothing like the experience we all love,” Barry Alvarez, the athletic director at Wisconsin, said in a letter to football season-ticket holders on Wednesday, when he said it would “not be appropriate for thousands of fans to gather in Camp Randall on Saturdays this fall.”
The missive itself, a plea to donate to Wisconsin, was a reminder of the pandemic’s growing financial toll. The athletic department, Alvarez said, was facing a revenue loss of at least $60 million, a figure that could rise as high as $100 million depending on how the football season evolved. Other universities expect to lose tens of millions of dollars. In the end, the repercussions could be most acutely felt in sports without large television contracts or games that draw more than 80,000 spectators.