Some circular common sense in the midst of COVID-19: Football players are students. Without students there is no school. Without school there is no football.
Students, whether they play varsity sports or not, are the common denominator. They matter most, which means they and players’ families should receive highest priority when Ohio State decides who should receive tickets into Ohio Stadium next fall, or whenever football ends up being played.
Well-heeled donors, tailgating superfans, even former Buckeyes who built the program — basically anyone not fortunate enough to land a spot in a luxury suite — all should rank behind students when it comes to having access to season tickets, which likely will be limited in 2020.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said on Wednesday that seating in 105,000-capacity Ohio Stadium likely would be reduced by half or more because of social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"We know that probably would take us down south of 30,000 fans in the stands — actually closer to (20,000-22,000)," Smith said, before clarifying in a tweet that as many as 50,000 could attend if social-distancing guidelines were relaxed.
Half as many fans in the Horseshoe? It will be interesting to watch "Gene’s Choice" play out. Who stays? Who goes? Money talks, but not as loudly as students cheer, and a half-filled stadium will need as many students as possible to bring life to dead concrete.
If every ticket counts, Les Wexner should pass through the gates only after the sophomore chemistry major is assured of a seat. When TV cameras focus on fans, I want to see face-painted sorority sisters before I see cape-wearing Buck-I-Guy.
Students come first, otherwise higher education risks lowering its standards. You can’t claim to be all-in for 18- to 21-year-olds, then give seating preference to 60-year-olds who give more money to their alma mater than most students make in a year.
Donors are important. The millions of dollars raised by OSU through football donations go toward the athletic department’s general scholarship fund, which is set aside for tuition costs of athletes in all 36 varsity sports.
This is not about punishing donors, whose giving creates more opportunities for athletes. But if Ohio State’s mission statement highlights students above all, the school should make sure every last one of them has the opportunity to see games in person.
To be clear, no one at Ohio State is suggesting, at least not publicly, that students be cut from the seating-chart mix. But do they count as A-listers? Smith mentioned how ticketing might work, with priority based in part on the point system currently used to assign seats, adding that players’ parents and guests of players and coaches would receive high priority.
"We’d have to make sure that we look at each individual group — faculty, staff, students, donors, Varsity O, parents of athletes, all those different constituencies — and come up with some strategies within those groups," he said.
Here’s a strategy: if only 30,000 stadium seats are available this fall, fill them with students and players’ and coaches’ families. Anything left over goes to university faculty and staff.
In 2019, with no Michigan game on the home schedule, OSU sold 21,716 student season-ticket packages; the number was 28,392 in 2018.
For bean counters, prioritizing student seating makes little sense. Students pay $238 for season tickets compared to $702 for reserved seat and $851 for box/club seating. That’s a sizable drop-off. No matter, I refer back to Ohio State’s academic mission statement:
The university is dedicated to: Educating students through a comprehensive array of distinguished academic programs; preparing a diverse student body to be leaders and engaged citizens …
I count two references to students and no mention of how many university bathroom floors need be tiled in terrazzo. Welcome to the world of belt-tightening. Maybe prioritizing students over donors means that for one year university "functions" provide $3.99 bottles of Winking Owl instead of $20 bottles of Coppola Pinot Noir. It’s called sacrificial leadership.
Ohio State athletics is not going broke. True, ticket buying is the biggest source of revenue tied to football, bringing in about $50 million a season, but OSU also received $45.6 million from the Big Ten’s lucrative TV contract. Plus, the athletic department keeps a rainy day fund that as of mid-April included $10.3 million in reserves.
Ohio State can afford to put students first. Big donors, longtime season-ticket holders and single-game purchasers can look at it as a way to put "How firm thy friendship" to the test.