In May, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said he hoped that Ohio Stadium could be nearly half-full for football games in 2020.
After telling reporters that he believed the Horseshoe could accommodate 20,000 to 25,000 spectators with social-distancing measures, he revised that figure to 50,000 in a tweet later that day.
On Thursday, in a conference call to discuss the Big Ten’s decision to cancel all nonconference contests in the fall, Smith was more pessimistic about potential attendance.
"A lot less than I thought," he said.
A maximum of 10,000-20,000 was more realistic.
"It’s closer to that area," Smith said. "I need to wait for my ticket manager to do his work, but certainly that area."
Even that might be overly optimistic. Smith said he wanted to emphasize that it’s not clear that any spectators will be allowed.
"(It’s) if we have fans in the stands," he said. "I just want everybody to be realistic here, because that’s a real concern."
Of course, the bigger question is whether there will be a season at all. Thursday’s decision is an attempt to buy time and give the conference flexibility to adjust based on the severity of COVID-19.
Some have advocated for pushing the season to the spring, but Smith downplayed that possibility.
"We haven’t talked about that in great detail," he said. "We decided to leave that on the table. Our focus was to focus on the fall. And obviously if things don’t happen with the fall, that’s something that we need to think about. Right now, that’s not a high priority."
If it comes to a spring season, Ohio State and other programs would almost certainly play without many of its stars. Players such as quarterback Justin Fields, offensive linemen Wyatt Davis and Josh Myers and cornerback Shaun Wade are eligible for the NFL draft in 2021. It would be shocking if they bypassed the NFL for a spring college season.
That’s more incentive for colleges to find a way to play some version of a fall football season, if the pandemic allows for that. Before COVID-19 hit, Smith had been a proponent of seeking competitive equity so that leagues with only eight conference games, namely the Southeastern Conference, didn’t have an advantage in terms of reaching the College Football Playoff over conferences with nine conference games.
"That’s no longer a concern of mine," Smith said. "I’ve shifted my priorities and concerns as I’ve learned more about the virus."
He said his goal is to give players a chance to compete this season, in whatever form.
"I’m more concerned about the regular season right now," Smith said. "If we’re blessed to have a postseason, whatever that looks like, great."
Regardless, the financial impact from an abbreviated season will be immense, even if teams are able to play 10 league games in front of at least some fans. With its vast resources, Ohio State is positioned to weather the storm better than most, but tough decisions loom.
Stanford announced this week it would discontinue 11 varsity programs. The Cardinal shared the distinction with Ohio State of having the country’s biggest athletic program — 36 sports.
Asked about the possibility of Ohio State cutting sports, Smith replied, "At this point in time, we’re avoiding that."
Asked about pay cuts for OSU coaches, Smith said, "Same."
Several other schools have announced salary cuts for their coaches.
Ohio State’s 10 assistant football coaches make a total of nearly $8 million. Coach Ryan Day will make $5.375 million in base salary in 2020. Men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann’s salary is just over $3 million.