COLUMBIA — As many professional sports leagues plan their return to operations or resumed competition after a two-month hiatus due to the coronavirus, college athletics has the luxury of time.
With all spring sports canceled, university administrators and athletic directors are mostly taking a wait-and-see approach to returning to campuses for classes and athletics in the fall, including Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk.
Most Power Five and Southeastern Conference institutions, including the UM System, have said they plan to be open for in-person instruction this fall. A glaring exception is the California State University system, the nation's largest public four-year system that oversees 23 campuses, which through a spokesperson said Wednesday it did not expect to re-open its campuses for in-person classes this fall.
California appears to be the outlier towards caution. Several sports, including the UFC and horse racing, have already resumed, and others like NASCAR, IndyCar and the PGA Tour are planning to resume soon.
"We're going to have the benefit of Major League Baseball, possibly the NFL, going ahead of us," Sterk said in a Zoom call with reporters Thursday. "So we'll have those events and those experiences to draw on and try to make the best decisions from there."
No immediate decision is required to determine whether or not there will be a football season this fall, so none is coming.
"I'm going to rely on the medical experts to give us the advice to do the correct thing at that time," Sterk said when asked what the protocol would be if a student-athlete returned to campus and tested positive for COVID-19.
Sterk noted UFC fighter Ronaldo Souza tested positive last weekend and was pulled from the UFC 249 event, but the remaining fights went on as scheduled.
The UM System's task force on re-opening campus is meeting next week to determine whether or not to ease restrictions starting June 1.
Missouri's athletic facilities are closed to players, apart from handing out meals and snacks and allowing medical treatment and rehab as allowed by the NCAA. If restrictions are scaled back, Missouri's weight rooms, practice fields and other facilities could re-open to players, but chancellors and presidents could also elect to move back the date campus facilities re-open.
LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said Wednesday he was preparing for students to return to campus June 1, the first day the SEC would permit a return to campus facilities, provided the restriction isn't extended beyond May 31.
Sterk said Missouri is planning on athletic events being played as scheduled, and said as long as the University's campus is "operational" even if classes aren't in-person, football games could still be played.
"It's not an all-or-none, as far as, if a school is online, it doesn't necessarily prevent athletic events from happening," he said, "because if a campus is operational, we could have athletic events."
He added, while he would prefer to have fans in the stands come fall, Missouri would be open to playing games with Memorial Stadium empty, but added "A full (stadium), right now, without a vaccine, probably is not something you'll see."
MU officials on both the academic and athletic sides of campus operations have emphasized the need for safety before fully reopening. The football team's South End Zone complex is open for some administrators and football coaches — offensive staff in the morning, defense in the afternoon — with temperature checks performed on everyone, along with following CDC guidelines such as quarantining if returning from out of state and social distancing.
"The student-athletes, that'll be another level, if you will, because they're going to be coming from different areas," Sterk said. "How long we quarantine, do we have everyone take a test, we haven't determined all that yet, and I'll take advice from the medical officials on the best way to do that."
But in most matters, including who would be allowed into the stadium if football games were played with reduced capacity, Sterk deferred, preferring, like most, to gather as much information as possible before committing to a decision.
"Anything of an opinion right now is a guess, and it's most likely to be wrong, so we're gonna wait," he said. "It'll be the middle of July, probably, before anyone makes a decision on the fall, so we've got a couple months yet to go and see where things are, and then make the best decisions possible by that time."
Financially, Sterk said the athletic department was forecasting a 20 percent reduction in ticket sales and donations, and said season ticket renewals and Tiger Scholarship Fund donations, with a May 31 deadline for renewal, are behind where they were at this point last year, though he did not have an exact figure. He said the athletic department would be taking "some kind of actions" to help meet the budget shortfall but did not go into specifics.
Missouri's athletics department ran at a $1.79 million deficit during the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to financial reporting documents filed with the NCAA.