Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher isn't surprised by much these days, but he was shocked when the Big Ten announced Thursday it was canceling its nonconference athletic schedule for the fall.
The coronavirus-motivated move by Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren nixes 11 football games from the MAC schedule, handing teams in the conference a loss of more than $10 million, including $2.15 million for Central Michigan, which was set to play — and be paid by — Nebraska and Northwestern. Kent State was set to play Penn State for $1.5 million, Toledo was getting $1.2 million from Michigan State and Ball State was getting $975,000 from Michigan.
The MAC plans to move forward as scheduled by competing in as many nonconference games as possible. What leaves Steinbrecher scratching his head, however, is the timeline of the Big Ten's choice that puts his member schools further in the hole.
"Our interest was in playing a full schedule," Steinbrecher said. "We know everybody is examining all sorts of things, but I did not expect this decision quite so soon."
Teams in the Group of 5 — FBS-level teams from the AAC, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt conferences — depend on game guarantees from Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC) to keep their athletic departments from crumbling, even though the matchups typically result in a loss. In the 2018-19 fiscal year, CMU's $1.15 million in football guarantees was 33.8% of the team's revenue, while ticket sales were just 16.9%.
"They are very valuable," Steinbrecher said. "We'll now have to step back and contemplate what that means for us."
Steinbrecher wouldn't elaborate whether he thought the upcoming season will take place, but he wants people to know he's "mindful of what's going" and will be "prepared to react" as necessary.
Shortly after the Big Ten's announcement, there were reports of the ACC following suit, although the conference has yet to confirm. That would wipe out four more nonconference games for the MAC.
MAC teams were expected to travel for Big Ten competitions against Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State (twice) and Penn State. Its ACC slate includes road games at Boston College, Clemson and Pittsburgh and a home game for Western Michigan against Syracuse. The University of Akron’s game at Clemson was expected to provide a $1.1 million payday to the Zips.
"Let's collect as much information," Steinbrecher said. "I sent out an email earlier in the week after talking with everyone, kind of where they're at, and now we're starting to get new information. We'll gather that, step back and contemplate how do we react or what does this mean for how we want to proceed."
On March 12, the Power 5 conferences all canceled their men's and women's basketball tournaments. Shortly thereafter, the NCAA tournaments were canceled. And when the Big Ten decided to shut down the remainder of athletics for the academic year, the NCAA followed closely soon after.
Each time the Big Ten moved, the MAC was caught in the chain reaction.
This time, Steinbrecher says the Big Ten's move was "not as coordinated" with other conferences, unlike the basketball tournaments.
"This is a very fluid situation," he said. "This is evidence of that. It's going to be an interesting three weeks coming up here, lots of decisions being made. We'll manage and see where we come out."
More Power 5 cancellations would also affect the MAC, with four games scheduled against the SEC — against Alabama, Kentucky (twice) and Missouri and one against the Big 12 (Kansas State). The MAC has no games scheduled against the Pac-12. Two of those games (vs. Alabama and Kentucky) involved Kent State, which was expecting a total payday of about $5 million from three games against Power 5 opponents.