College Football Scrambles to Stay Out of Hurricane Florence’s Path

(Bloomberg) -- Hurricane Florence is upending this weekend’s slate of college football games, with 11 top-tier games already changed and a handful of others in limbo. For the schools involved -- and even some that aren’t -- there’s bowl eligibility potentially at stake, as well as Heisman Trophy consideration, safety concerns, and of course, millions of dollars.

Among the cancellations are North Carolina State’s home game against No. 14 West Virginia and No. 18 Central Florida’s trip to play the University of North Carolina, both originally scheduled for Saturday afternoon, both on ESPN networks. Neither has been rescheduled as of Thursday morning.

“Hosting a major college football game is a massive undertaking that on a good day involves fans and thousands of state, local and campus personnel, including public safety officials, traveling from all over the area,” said UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham. “The current forecast for both the impact and aftermath of the hurricane would require those officials to divert critical resources from what could be much more significant duties.”

Games that can’t be rescheduled are a financial liability for home teams, which would have to refund millions in pre-sold tickets and lose one of the home dates that generate a lot of their non-TV revenue.

As for visiting teams, they’re often paid large sums to travel to bigger programs, checks that are critical for less-wealthy schools to help balance their athletic budget. But if a game gets cancelled due to weather or another "act of God," the host doesn’t have to pay.

Marshall University was contracted to receive $1.3 million -- a school record -- to travel to the University of South Carolina this weekend. Though the game was cancelled, and the contract voided, the school will recoup some of that money through an insurance policy purchased by Conference USA to protect its members. Ohio University said it will still receive the $650,000 under its contract with University of Virginia, even though its game on Saturday has been moved to Nashville.

A few of the cancelled games will be rescheduled to later in the season, which could affect schools playing well clear of the storm this weekend. Two years ago, Hurricane Matthew postponed a Southeastern Conference game between the University of Florida and Louisiana State. To reschedule for later in the year, both teams canceled non-conference guarantee games against smaller programs.

The University of South Alabama received $1.5 million for its LSU commitment; Presbyterian College got $500,000 from Florida. The two teams ended up playing each other that day, and South Alabama’s victory helped the Jaguars finish 6-6 and sneak into a bowl game.

Some games, like West Virginia versus NC State, won’t be rescheduled at all. West Virginia AD Shane Lyons doesn’t want to take away the Mountaineers’ lone off-week. Relocating this week to a neutral site is its own migraine.

“You are trying to sell 60,000 tickets,” in a week, Lyons said on the school’s athletics page. “You don’t have food for the concession areas, you don’t have the emergency response people on the books, and it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds to make it happen.”

There can also be broader benefits to calling off a game. Cancelling a weekend’s activities may help convince people to evacuate if needed. If freed up by fans, hotel rooms could instead be used by emergency personnel or people evacuating more dangerous areas. UNC is urging fans to release hotel reservations so others can use them.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.