Georgia, Tech’s non-conference foes deal with threat of being dropped

Bulldogs' future non-conference opponents

ATHENS – For Georgia and football programs like it, the term they use for the potential costs of losing games to the coronavirus pandemic is “exposure.” For the non-conference opponents that could get dropped from their schedules, “devastation” is a more fitting word choice.

The SEC is expected to decide soon whether to follow the lead of the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences and adopt a conference-only schedule for the coming football season. If it goes that route, then at least two opponents currently slated to play the Bulldogs stand to suffer dire financial consequences.

East Tennessee State and Louisiana-Monroe are contracted to receive $2.3 million from UGA to play the Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on Sept. 12 and Sept. 26, respectively. Depending on how those contracts are interpreted, they potentially could get nothing instead.

Louisiana-Monroe Athletic Director Scott McDonald said that would be a “tremendous” hit to his athletic department. The Warhawks also are set to play at Arkansas on Nov. 21, which with its UGA agreement will mean $3.2 million in revenue for ULM.

That represents more than one-fifth of the school’s total athletic budget of about $15 million. Georgia’s budget, by comparison, is $149.3 million this year.

“So, you can see what kind of an impact that would have on a budget that constricted,” McDonald said. “It’s very important our program.”

Louisiana-Monroe plays at least one SEC team almost every season. So do most Sun Belt Conference teams. But the Warhawks are the only Sun Belt team that has defeated Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Kentucky over the years.

Georgia has played ULM four times previously, winning comfortably each time. They last played in 2015, when the Bulldogs won 51-14.

The latest agreement between the schools was brokered in 2017. It was a lucrative one for the Warhawks – a $1.75 million guarantee.

Georgia is scheduled to pay East Tennessee State $550,000 for what’s slated to be the home opener at Sanford Stadium. An FCS program, such a payday is equally important to the Buccaneers’ bottom line.

“Any guarantee game we schedule at ETSU is critically important for the success of our program and the financial abilities to provide for our student-athletes,” AD Scott Carter said in a statement emailed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Bulldogs also have non-conference games scheduled against Virginia on Sept. 7 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Georgia Tech on Nov. 28 in Athens. But those contests don’t come with financial guarantees from Georgia.

While the ETSU and ULM games do, whether UGA would still have to pay if they didn’t play is a matter of debate. It could come down to the legal interpretation of the force majeure clauses in those contracts.

“Force majeure” is a legal term that specifies the events or circumstances that could free one or both parties from the liability or obligation of the terms. As it reads in Georgia’s contracts with ETSU and ULM contracts, which were both executed in 2017, that is defined as “an Act of God, inevitable accident, fire, lockout, national day of mourning or because of any reason beyond the control of one of the parties.”

That definition does not include the term “epidemic” or “pandemic.” However, the word “epidemic” is now included in a state of Georgia definition that was adopted March 20.

Regardless, Group of Five conferences such as the Sun Belt believe that their Power 5 partners won’t leave them flapping in the wind.

“We feel confident they’re going to do everything they can to honor their commitment,” McDonald said. “Certainly, we’re going to do everything to honor our part.”

While Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren has not made a public statement on the subject, behind the scenes he’s alleged to have told his league members to honor all existing guarantees. Two Sun Belt teams will be impacted by that decision. Appalachian State was scheduled to play at Wisconsin and Arkansas State was set to play at Michigan.

The thought is that SEC teams also would make good on their guarantees. They certainly can afford to. League members currently receive more than $40 million annually per their conference agreements.

SEC officials declined comment because a conference-only schedule remains a hypothetical scenario. Besides, if any SEC teams play intraconference opponents on the dates they were contracted to play guarantee games, they’d be in breach anyway.

“I’d think, if you weren’t playing all fall, you wouldn’t have an obligation (to pay),” Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said. “But if we’re playing somebody somewhere on that day, you’d probably have to negotiate or try to schedule them later. But we don’t know yet if we have to do that. That’s probably all I can say about it right now.”

Georgia Tech will find itself in a similar situation if the ACC decides to go the intraconference route. In addition to Georgia, the Yellow Jackets are scheduled to play host to Gardner-Webb (Sept. 12) and Central Florida (Sept. 18) this season and have a deal to play Notre Dame in what was slated to be a non-conference game Nov. 14 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Tech could have some issues with Gardner-Webb. Per the contract terms, the Jackets would owe Gardner-Webb $750,000 for canceling the game within a year of it being held. That is, unless the force majeure clause provides relief. It states that the game can be canceled without damages owed in the event of “an unforeseen catastrophe or disaster or by order of government, military, public authority or any competent judicial or other government authority.” Whether that language covers a pandemic makes for a great legal argument.

There is similar language in the Tech’s game contract with Central Florida. As the contract reads, the Jackets would owe $750,000 for canceling within 15 months of the scheduled date, unless the force majeure clause is activated.

Interestingly, these two teams have found it difficult to get a game conducted since it was arranged while George O’Leary was still the Knights’ coach. They were supposed to play in Orlando on Sept. 16, 2017, but that game was canceled because of the effects of Hurricane Irma. They rescheduled to play at UCF in 2022, but have always been on the books to play in Atlanta on Sept. 19 of this year.

Regardless, it currently remains the intent of the ACC and SEC -- and their non-conference opponents, for that matter -- to play full 12-game schedules this fall. In addition to a conference-only scenarios, there is consideration being given for a delayed start until later in the fall. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and the league’s 14 athletic directors plan to convene on or before July 31 to make a final decision on how to proceed – or not.

The Sun Belt and Southern conferences, which include Louisiana-Monroe and East Tennessee, likewise are holding meetings and conference calls. At this point, they also plan on playing a full slate.

“We are preparing for that game and are looking forward to playing the University of Georgia in Athens,” Carter said.

Said McDonald: “We’re keeping in contact with the University of Georgia. Right now, they intend to play the game and we intend to be there to play it. But it’s something we’re monitoring literally every day.”

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