Montana State University brought football players back to its Bozeman campus this week for voluntary workouts. The University of Utah will do the same beginning June 15 as the two sides progress towards having their non-conference football game played as scheduled, Sept. 12 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Things might be moving in a positive direction, but there remains uncertainty in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no guarantee an entire 12-game season gets played. Multiple Pac-12 coaches, including Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, have said publicly that 11, 10 and even 9-game conference-only schedules are on the table as solutions to salvage the season.
Those are of course merely contingency plans. For now, Montana State is planning on a September trip to Salt Lake City, having been given no indication otherwise. As far as Bobcats athletic director Leon Costello knows, the game will not be canceled.
“Actually, we’ve got a call scheduled this week, but [senior associate athletic director] Dan Davies on my staff has been working with their staff, specifically on the details of the contract and things like that, and that has not come up,” Costello said on a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “I think we are both progressing as the game is going to happen. I think maybe our focus is on, the game is going to happen, but what’s it going to look like in the stands? What does that look like? What does travel look like? We have not had discussions about the game not happening.”
Agreed to and signed on Oct. 26, 2017, the Utah-Montana State game contract, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune via GRAMA request, calls for MSU to receive $675,000 from Utah for playing the game. “Guarantee games” between FCS and Power Five programs are an annual occurrence that generally include hefty sums of money, often reaching into seven figures.
Montana State, a perennial FCS contender expected to begin the 2020 season ranked in the top 5, does not annually play a “guarantee game,” but when it does, it counts on that money as part of its operating budget.
For fiscal 2019, which did not include a football “guarantee game,” Montana State reported $19.317 million in athletic department revenue vs. $19.347 million in athletic department expenses. The revenue figure includes $7.65 million in university support, not a gigantic number compared to athletic subsidies across the country, but that certainly isn’t nothing, either.
Ultimately, after getting a smaller-than-anticipated cut of NCAA revenue thanks to March Madness being canceled, missing out on a $675,000 payday Sept. 12 would be bad for business at Montana State.
“We’ve talked about this a lot. We are maybe a little different when you look at an FCS program in that we do get some help from the university, but we generate half of our operating budget through external revenues each and every year,” Costello said. “That’s from ticket sales, sponsorships, donations, things like that, so anything that we are able to generate will have a huge impact on our bottom line each and every year.
“We do play games like this to help us in certain years and without a game like this, for sure, we will see a financial hit, just like we saw this year with the NCAA men’s basketball distributions as well. Of course, we’re counting on it, we need it, just like we need as many fans in our stands as we possibly can this year, obviously under the guides of safety and wellbeing, but those dollars that come in truly impact us on a daily basis from a financial standpoint.”
There is language in the game contract accounting for “uncontrollable forces,” in which case the $675,000 would not be owed and the teams have the option to reschedule.
However, there is also language accounting for “liquidated damages.” That reads, “in the event either party should cancel or otherwise fail to participate in any scheduled game for any reason other than uncontrollable forces, the defaulting party shall pay the non-defaulting party the sum of $1,000,000.”
If one side cannot play due to COVID-19 reasons, it is unclear whether that qualifies as “uncontrollable forces” or “liquidated damages.” The same unknown applies with Utah potentially playing a conference-only schedule in the middle of a pandemic. Utah’s next schedule opening should it need to reschedule with Montana State isn’t until 2025. For what it’s worth, the Bobcats are already scheduled to play at Oregon to open the 2025 season.
Utah could run into similar situations with its other two non-conferences games BYU and Wyoming.
In theory, postponing Utah-BYU should not offer much trouble, although it could take a while. The two sides have seven games scheduled through 2028, not to mention a healthy working relationship, but the Utes’ next opening in a year in which they are not already playing the Cougars isn’t until 2030.
Utah and Wyoming will open a home-and-home in Laramie, with the Cowboys making the return trip to Salt Lake City in 2025. Comparable to Montana State, the Wyoming game contract, also acquired by The Tribune via GRAMA, includes language pertaining to “impossibility” and “damages.”
“When you’re in a state like Montana, and even Utah, we start to see our state opening up more and more each and every day,” Costello said. “We just entered phase two here yesterday and as we see people kind of getting back to normal, are we going to see any spikes in cases, and what does that mean? If we don’t, that’s a great sign. If we do, we have to deal with it and I think that’s going to be one of the things we need to overcome.
“The other one is, how can we truly protect our student-athletes and the fans that will be coming to these games? Whether that’s testing, a screening process, antibody testing, whatever it may be with our local health officials, those are things that are going to have to be in place and things that we are going to have to trust that we can do on a regular basis to ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes and fans.”