Scott McDonald didn’t feel shocked when the Southeastern Conference altered its 2020 schedule. McDonald, the athletic director at UL-Monroe, had tracked rumors about limited scheduling models earlier this week, and with influential leagues across the country having already canceled non-conference games, he anticipated the SEC would do the same.
But for McDonald, the SEC’s decision Thursday to play 10 conference games potentially removed $3.15 million from his athletic department — a significant sum for a school that made $15.6 million in 2018-2019. The money, tied to game contracts with Georgia and Arkansas, would help fund ULM athletics this year.
McDonald now faces debates with two SEC athletic directors. Within college football, teams outside the Power Five conferences rely on payments from “guarantee games” to sustain their athletic budget. Larger programs pay smaller schools hundreds of thousands — sometimes millions — of dollars for an almost guaranteed win.
The SEC’s decision eliminated those games, and Louisiana teams may lose $12.425 million as a result. Depending on interpretations of language in game contracts, SEC schools may not have to pay the guaranteed sums.
The Southeastern Conference announced Thursday it will play a 10-game, league-only schedule, joining the majority of the other major college f…
“I still haven't had any formal or official discussions with officials from Arkansas or Georgia,” McDonald said. “We'll wait and see how those discussions go.”
In Louisiana, the SEC’s choice scratched four LSU games, including its rematch with Texas, which carried a $1.5 million payment. LSU also dropped games against UTSA, Rice and Nicholls State. Those three games had a combined $5,475,000 in payments. The Tigers will pick up two games against other SEC programs.
Though LSU is the only SEC team in Louisiana, the announcement affected other schools within the state. Five road games were canceled for Group of 5 teams in Louisiana: ULM against Georgia and Arkansas; Louisiana Tech against Vanderbilt; UL against Missouri; and Tulane against Mississippi State.
Athletic directors at those schools expect legal debates in the coming months. Clauses in contracts — often called "force majeure" — determine what happens if a game gets canceled because of circumstances beyond either school's control. The clauses could produce different results. Some Louisiana schools may obtain cancellation fees.
[Editor's note: This story been updated to reflect an updated figure regarding LSU's contracts]
“There is a financial penalty for that (contract) being broken,” Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen said. Tulane would have received $200,000 from Mississippi State this year. The game contract stipulated a $1 million cancellation fee. “Certainly, we're interested in seeing what Mississippi State's desire is going forward.”
Losing the money from guarantee games could devastate smaller programs. The coronavirus pandemic has already shrunk budgets, and the virus continues to threaten an important revenue source for athletic departments.
“The circumstances that have led to these interim decisions still have to change before we're able to play,” Dannen said. “If the current environment was satisfactory, nobody would be changing anything. But the current environment is not satisfactory.”
Losses in ticket sales, NCAA distribution and other forms of income at ULM have already totaled about $1.3 million, McDonald said last week. Losing money from guarantee games could make the situation worse.
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As of Thursday afternoon, McDonald had not spoken to representatives from Arkansas or Georgia. He declined to expand on how ULM will approach cancellation fees in the game contract.
“It would be inappropriate for me to say until I've had those direct discussions with those folks and they formally notify me that the game has in fact been canceled,” McDonald said. “And then we'll move our discussions from there. I'm hopeful those will be productive discussions.”
Before the SEC’s announcement, four non-conference games involving Louisiana schools had been canceled by other conferences’ decisions, including Louisiana Tech’s game against Prairie View A&M.
The fallout provided a snapshot of what arguments to expect in the coming months. The game contract listed "Acts of God and nature" and "Acts of Common Enemy” in its force majeure clause. Louisiana Tech athletic director Tommy McClelland believes the pandemic qualifies under “nature,” so he said last week the program intends to notify Prairie View to pay the $500,000 cancellation fee.
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"In our opinion," McClelland said at the time, "we're having to reschedule the game due to their cancellation."
At Nicholls State, athletic director Jonathan Terrell sat in his office when the SEC released its announcement Thursday afternoon. Terrell immediately thought about the football coaches and players who wouldn’t participate in Nicholls’ first game inside Tiger Stadium. He felt sad because they had lost the opportunity. Then Terrell considered the financial implications for his athletic department.
“That was a $575,000 game,” Terrell said. “In our budget, those games mean so much to our program.”
Terrell, who has held this job for 24 days, hopes to schedule a replacement game with a Group of 5 program in Louisiana, ideally one that will pay for the contest. He doesn’t know if Nicholls State has a chance to receive the $1 million cancellation fee or any other compensation from LSU.
“There might be a chance,” Terrell said. “It's a state school. They're going to do what's right, hopefully by whatever they can do. I have no idea what that looks like.”
As Terrell spoke, the LSU game contract sat on his desk, waiting to be reviewed. Section 12 listed various events, including war, fire and rebellion, that would make the game "impossible or impractical" and relieve both schools of the agreement. It did not refer to a pandemic.