The Pac-12 reversed course Thursday and approved non-conference games for healthy teams that have a league contest canceled because of COVID-19 issues, according to a conference source with knowledge of the situation.
The athletic directors agreed to the move earlier in the week after a spate of cancellations raised the prospect that an odd number of healthy teams could be left without an opponent, leaving one without a game to play.
The presidents and chancellors, who implemented a conference-only schedule in July, approved the reversal Thursday.
“The Pac-12 is committed to maintaining maximum flexibility to provide our football student-athletes with an opportunity to compete, while continuing to ensure that health and safety remains our number one priority,” Commissioner Larry Scott said as the news became official.
The conference attached parameters to any non-conference game:
— All Pac-12 testing and related protocols must be adhered to by the non-conference opponent;
(Pac-12 teams conduct antigen tests each day of practice or high-transmission activities; prior to travel; and on game day. They also require at least one PCR test per week.)
— The non-conference game will in all cases be a home game for the Pac-12 team, broadcast by a Pac-12 television partner;
(Each game televised by Fox or ESPN generates approximately $5 million for the conference, or $417,000 per member.)
— If a Pac-12 opponent becomes available by the end of day Thursday in any given week, the Conference game must be played in lieu of any non-conference game.
It is not known how many teams will pursue non-conference games.
Economically, it might not make sense.
Opponents from the Mountain West or other Group of Five leagues would require a paycheck in return for their efforts and expenses.
But without ticket sales and concessions to drive up game-day revenue, Pac-12 teams would be forced to dip into their TV income to make the guarantee payment.
In other cases, a non-conference game might make sense.
“We want to have flexibility ... once we exhaust our ability to play a conference game,” a source explained.
The move reverses the Pac-12’s early-July ban on non-conference games — a decision rooted in concerns over the opponents’ health-and-safety standards.
Those concerns remain, although the ability for teams to conduct point-of-care antigen tests (prior to practice and kickoff) seemingly makes the situation more tenable.
Colorado appeared to be a candidate to take the non-conference route this week after its game against Arizona State was canceled.
But athletic director Rick George issued a statement saying the Buffaloes would stay home if they didn’t have a conference opponent available.
“We are waiting out the day to make sure the other five Pac-12 games that are scheduled will go forth with no COVID issues, and that we would not be matched in a conference game,” George said.
“That being said, even though the conference has approved non-conference opponents if one can be found that satisfies the testing protocols the Pac-12 has in place for its members, we will not play a non-conference opponent this weekend.
“However, in the future if a similar instance arises, it would give us more time to prepare, but for now, we want to concentrate on game preparations for the USC game next Saturday in Los Angeles.”
The decision to allow non-conference games marks the second course-correction for the Pac-12 presidents in the past three months.
In August, they voted to postpone the season until January, only to resurrect fall football a month later.