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Half-full or half-empty? Either way, limiting college football stadiums to 50% capacity is a big blow for athletic departments.
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Half-full or half-empty? Either way, limiting college football stadiums to 50% capacity is a big blow for athletic departments.

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Oklahoma celebrates after the defense stopped the Texas Christian offense on fourth down in the fourth quarter on November 23, 2019, at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma.

Oklahoma celebrates after the defense stopped the Texas Christian offense on fourth down in the fourth quarter on November 23, 2019, at Gaylord Family Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Oklahoma. (Brian Bahr/Getty Images/TNS)

DALLAS - Call it half-full or half-empty.

Either way, a state of Texas decision to limit the capacity of college football stadiums to 50% capacity would represent a major blow to the bottom line of college athletic departments. And some season-ticket holders could be part of the hard decisions of the new COVID-19 landscape.

During a recent video conference with Division I athletic directors in the state, Gov. Greg Abbott told the group to plan on 50% capacity for the upcoming football season. He confirmed the original USA Today report at a recent press conference and said his concern went beyond fans in the stands.

"It includes more than just the seating strategy," Abbott said. "It includes the way people will go about the process of entering stadiums. They'll include things such as avoiding large gathering areas within stadiums and certain other strategies."

That leaves football schools throughout the state potentially making hard decisions. During a recent school video, Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp called Aggie football "the economic driver" for the athletic department.

It's not inaccurate. A&M generated about $45 million in football ticket revenue last season, athletic director Ross Bjork said, in addition to $40 million in donations tied to priority. Factoring licensing, TV and the postseason, football accounts for about 80% of athletic department revenue, Bjork said.

At nearly all FBS schools, football helps fund the non-revenue and Olympic sports.

Not everybody has given up hope of stadiums that more closely resemble the packed houses we've seen in the past. Bjork and Texas AD Chris Del Conte have talked recently about having something close to the normal game-day experience. Texas netted $42.5 million in football ticket revenue in 2018, according to published reports.

Following the meeting with Abbott, Bjork was not ready to commit to any reduced seating planning, still viewing the situation as fluid.

"As of today, we still have time on our side," Bjork said, "and we will not make decisions based on incomplete information."

At the same time, nearly all schools have started looking at the implications at reduced seating. Del Conte told Sports Illustrated that his staff had looked at nine different models.

Baylor AD Mack Rhoades said the school began modeling about May 1 based on 25%, 50% and 75% capacity and a reduction is built into the new athletic budget that went into effect June 1.

Baylor's season-ticket base represents about 50% of capacity at 45,000-seat McLane Stadium. The rest of the normal game-day includes student seating and single-game sales, Rhoades said.

It's not just the financial restrictions. At some schools where season-ticket holders are more than 50% of stadium capacity, longtime fans may find themselves without seats to show for their loyalty.

"Those are potentially going to be some really difficult conversations," Rhoades said. "If you have a season ticket number that exceeds the 50 percent capacity, how do you narrow that down and reduce it to the 50 percent? Absolutely, that's going to be a challenge for every institution."

Schools outside of Texas also face reduced capacity.

Like his colleagues in Texas and other states, Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione will be dealing with state and local political and health officials.

Gaylord Family Memorial Stadium, with a capacity now of just over 80,000, has been sold out for every home game since 1999. With social distancing, that streak is distinctly in jeopardy.

"When you think of that, you're talking about a significant reduction in seating capacity or people in the stadium and the financial impact related to how many you're actually able to let in the stadium," Castiglione said. "For us, it hasn't been determined exactly yet. But we would be operating at somewhere less than 50%."

He's focused on preparation, not predictions at this point.

"All I'm saying is we're working diligently to prepare to adjust to anything that we can allow," Castiglione said.

The hard decisions would go away if the pandemic relents, if the number of cases decrease.

If only...

"I think as of right now, it doesn't seem like it's trending that way but it changes," Rhoades said. "There seems to be a spike in positive cases. There's no data today that says, 'Hey, I feel really good about capacity moving from 50 percent if that is where we land to 75 percent.' "

If proven medications are developed by the fall, it could be a totally different conversation.

"There's still hope," Rhoades said. "But if I have to make a decision based on what we know today, I don't know that we're going to get to more than 50 percent."

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