UGA plans for football as usual this fall

Georgia fans cheer for their team during an NCAA college football game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, November 23, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia fans cheer for their team during an NCAA college football game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, November 23, 2019. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Count the Georgia Bulldogs among the Power 5 programs that are confident there not only will be a full college football season this year, but stands full of fans to watch it.

While tempering their comments with caveats regarding impossible-to-know future developments with the coronavirus pandemic, UGA President Jere Morehead and Athletic Director Greg McGarity spoke optimistically about a close-to-normal college football season.

“Right now, our plan is to move forward and start the season on time and to have a full season,” Morehead said in a question-and-answer session with reporters following Thursday’s meeting of the Georgia athletics board. “I can’t predict events that would change that plan, but that’s the approach that the SEC is operating under.”

Morehead was to join the SEC’s weekly video conference call with university presidents and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey immediately after talking to reporters. But he said the goal is for stadiums to be as full as they can get them.

“Personally, I’m hoping that we don’t have to put any restrictions on at Sanford Stadium,” Morehead said of the Bulldogs’ 92,746-seat facility. “But I have no idea what the public-health experts are going to be telling us at that point. If they say we have to have social distancing or you have to wear masks, then we’ll approach things as we’re advised to do so.”

UGA’s revenue stream obviously will be smaller if there are crowd-size restrictions. Georgia reported Thursday it already has sold more than 56,000 season tickets, a school record after expanding the number available after last season.

But the budget approved by the athletic association’s board Thursday indicates UGA is expecting financial repercussions from the pandemic. The $149.4 million represents a decrease of more than $4 million from the current fiscal year, which concludes at the end of this month.

Meanwhile, the athletic department has internal models that it hasn’t shared publicly of budgets altered to reflect reduced spectator capacity for football and other sports.

“It’s all dependent on the definition of mass gatherings,” McGarity said. “So, if it’s 50 percent occupancy or 25 percent or everybody can come, you know, we just don't know. We'll know more at the end of this month. We'll know a lot more by Aug. 1. At some point in time we have to know and be very clear in communicating our plan. But that's not important today.”

McGarity did say that ticket holders would be refunded not just for the price of the tickets, but also for the donations that are required for the right to purchase the seats.

“We don't really need to go in that direction right now because our first home game is not until September,” McGarity said.

Georgia opens the season Sept. 7 – Labor Day night -- against Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Bulldogs’ first game on campus is Sept. 12 against East Tennessee State.

Football players and men’s and women’s basketball players were approved by the SEC to return to campus for voluntary workouts June 8. So far, only Georgia football players have been cleared to do so.

Meanwhile, Morehead said that the university is anticipating “face-to-face instruction” for fall semester, which begins in August.

McGarity said continued incremental progress in that direction make a normal football schedule with fans in attendance a distinct possibility. The key is no major setbacks.

“That's why I think these next four weeks are going to be critical to see how each campus is handling the spread of the virus,” McGarity said “You know, we can only have our arms around these young men while they're here for voluntary workouts. Now what they do when they leave our building … is going to be important. … But I just feel really good about it because these young men really want to play the season and they’re going to do everything that can to do their part.”

In other board business Thursday:

• Athletic Director Greg McGarity was approved for a one-year contract extension.

• Sophomore wide receiver Kearis Jackson was introduced as a one of two new athlete representatives on the board for 2020-21. The other was senior soccer player Carolina Chipman. A non-athlete student will be elected in the fall.

• Deputy AD Josh Brooks said ongoing construction of the $80 million Butts-Mehre expansion for football is “on-time and on-budget” despite inordinately wet weather in January and February and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March. The first phase is set to be open for use in January of 2021.

• Faculty athletics representative David Shipley reported a record 3.34 overall GPA for UGA athletes for spring semester despite having to move to online instruction midway through the term.