The big goal of a full Kinnick Stadium in the fall still is in play, Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said Thursday. Now, the path to that is fraught with risk and changes nearly every time Barta meets with his Big Ten colleagues.
Of course, no one knows if COVID-19 will allow that to happen. Barta didn’t get on Thursday’s video conference to make empty promises. He stated the goal and the reality it’s going to take for Iowa to get there.
College football has 100 days until kickoffs. The clock is ticking and fans are restless. Full stadiums is one of the scenarios. The math on the scenarios trickles down from there. What would it look like at 75 percent capacity, 50 percent capacity and so on?
“We’re learning more every day,” Barta said. “We have 100 more days and my guess is we’re going to learn an awful lot between now and then. With all of that uncertainty, my staff and I are planning for several different scenarios. The scenarios might change by the hour, day or week, but as of today, we are still planning to open up Kinnick and have as many fans join us who want to join us. We haven’t closed that scenario down yet.”
Barta didn’t talk hard details on games at Kinnick this fall. There are too many scenarios to nail down exactly how it would work. The CDC, state government and the Big Ten will have a say in when the light turns green for play.
The two big takeaways: Barta said the UI is looking into numerous ways to mitigate the risk of contracting the virus. He also pledged transparency on what Iowa is doing to mitigate.
“Once fans know what we’re doing to mitigate, then they’ll make a choice to attend or not attend and they’ll also make a choice to protect others around them,” Barta said.
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The other part is personal choice and risk. You have to make the choice to take the risk. Barta was clear: There’s going to be risk.
“As long as the virus is here and until a vaccine can be created, there will be risks,” Barta said. “We can’t eliminate risk. We will work to mitigate it and people will have to make that choice.”
Iowa football has been cleared to return to workouts June 8. It’s important to note that these are “voluntary” workouts. If an athlete doesn’t feel comfortable and chooses not to participate, Barta stressed it won’t affect their scholarship or standing with their teams.
How might it look when the Hansen Football Performance Center reopens? The Hawkeyes will have a tiered return with a group of as much as 70 beginning in June and then progressing to the full roster of 105 as time and the virus allow. Remember, the virus numbers could spike and that would shut this down.
So, what happens when a University of Iowa student-athlete comes down with COVID-19?
“It’s not a matter of if someone gets the virus, it’s when,” Barta said. “I’ll present this in a way and I hope it comes out the right way: If one person were to get sick and we were to shut down, we might as well not open up. Let me explain myself. We expect that there will be students on this campus, there will be staff on this campus who will get the virus. We will have medical plans on the treatment of those students, faculty or staff, just like the community has, and we will manage it with contact tracing and making sure we’re aware of where that person was and then going through a protocol to return. That’s the way it’s going to go when, not if, but when someone gets the virus.”
Every move is going to have medical advice and cautions baked into it. College football wants to and has to get moving. There’s no Zoom video conferencing around the physical act of returning.
“In the medical community, you have some doctors who believe the only way to address the pandemic is to stay at home and never leave your house,” Barta said. “There are medical professionals who say that because that’s what they medically believe. I don’t know if it’s common sense, but the reality is, and this is my belief, I don’t believe we can stay at home until a vaccine is created or discovered.
“My approach is let’s listen to the medicine and then let’s match that with the risk and the risk analysis and then let’s go out of our homes and know the risk.”
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If the goal of 100 percent capacity at Kinnick doesn’t happen, plan B would be a modified seating plan at some sort of set capacity with social distancing. The UI would rely on its priority points system, season-ticket holders, family and students and university staff. One example of how it could work is these groups getting a certain number of games. The UI will want to reward fans who’ve hung in the longest. If fans buy tickets and aren’t served, those moneys could roll into next season or be returned.
Iowa has sold 36,000 tickets for 2020. That’s nearly 50 percent of Kinnick right there (69,250 capacity).
Barta didn’t have much to report on the financial impact of COVID-19. Iowa has budgeted to pay everyone in the athletics department through the end of the fiscal year (June 30). Hiring and spending freezes have been put in place. Barta said the UI is prepared to lose multiple millions of dollars and will rely on reserve funds. Revenue will be down in 2021 “even under the best-case scenario,” Barta said. He’s in touch with coaches and staff about spending and compensation cuts for next year and said that’s been positive.
“Our staff has been amazing in helping us identify how we’re going to put together next year’s budget,” Barta said, “knowing it’s going to be a shared sacrifice.”
In his conversations with other Big Ten athletics directors. Barta doesn’t see a situation where student-athletes are basically sequestered. Iowa is going to ask athletes to sign a pledge that specifically relates to their lives outside of football during COVID-19.
“We have expectations for you as a student-athlete to represent yourself and do the right thing,” Barta said. “We’re going to take it a step further for our staff and student-athletes. We’re going to ask them to sign a pledge of expectations as it specifically relates to this virus.
“It’s just going to say things like ‘I understand that the decisions I make outside of our facilities are really important for my teammates and myself.’”
One more thing, Barta said there will be tailgating when/if football returns. He doesn’t know where or what it will look like, but he didn’t shy away from the question.
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