MISSOULA — On Tuesday, University of Montana officials addressed a question on many sports' fans minds: Will we be able to see the Griz play in person, or at all, this fall?
UM athletic director Kent Haslam and head football coach Bobby Hauck are obviously not able to predict the future, and the coronavirus pandemic has been a fluid situation, to say the least. However, both weighed in on their hopes and expectations for the upcoming season.
At the beginning of the media conference call, though, Haslam started by addressing the current state of America after the George Floyd killing that has sparked worldwide protests.
"I think I would be remissed if I didn't comment on our society and what's going on right now," said Haslam. "This has been a good exercise in reminding me as a leader of an athletic department that I need to spend a lot of time listening. I need to educate myself on issues revolving around racism and how we treat each other. I look forward to, in the future, using this as an opportunity to have some great discussions with our student-athletes, with our coaches, and understanding more. I've often felt that we don't have to be the same to be united, it's our diversity that makes us strong. You can't unsee that video of what happened to George Floyd, it was a difficult, difficult thing to watch."
Hauck opened with statements about how the shutdown may have actually helped the physical health of the football team and prevented players from getting sick, but was detrimental for their mental health.
When Hauck was asked about the current state of America and whether he has had conversations with the team to gauge their thoughts, he had this to say: "We don't have a lot of access to our players right now. We do talk, position coaches talk with their guys numerous times a week and we have staff meetings where we discuss a lot of things."
Hauck was then asked about last Tuesday, June 2, when a wave of solid black, square images were posted on Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #BlackoutTuesday to show solidarity with the black community. Hauck responded by saying, "I don't do social media, so I didn't see anything."
The phone conference moved on with Haslam going through what the steps would be between the University of Montana and state and local health departments to assure fans could be back in Washington-Grizzly Stadium this fall.
"We're part of a much larger campus group, we rely on that campus group to stay in touch with the health department," said Haslam. "We know we're in Phase 2 right now, and so our plan is to develop a plan and then go back to county health officials and gauge that at the state level. We're going to look at things in sections. Certainly, you've got tailgating and how we get fans by foot and by mass transit and by parking and by car. Then the entrance into the stadium, we know that anytime we can keep groups together that's going to make things better. Then the game environment itself, while the game is going from kick to the end and how that looks. Access to restrooms, access to concessions. Those are all things we're considering."
Haslam also went on to discuss the fact that 22 players will be on the field making contact on every play. He says testing will be a big part of containing the virus at UM, but also knows they need to be diligent about the visiting teams, as well.
"California or Oregon, we have a team coming from Kentucky," said Haslam" "Washington, Utah and how they travel in and what they bring as well."
While there's been talk of an altered schedule due to teams restricting travel, Haslam says all three out-of-conference opponents have confirmed that they are still planning to come to Washington-Grizzly Stadium this fall.
"I'm on the football committee that meets weekly," said Haslam, "we have those discussions. Right now we have to plan that they're coming to play. There's really no other way to go about doing it."
Not only are single-game ticket sales a worry, but season-ticket holders are, as well. Many have not renewed or made a decision yet with the deadline to renew being pushed back to July 3.
"If we come to a limited capacity situation, then our first priority will be getting students and our season ticket holders in," said Haslam. "It could be a situation where we don't sell a single-game ticket."
There are still a lot of question marks surrounding the Griz football season, from the schedule to stadium capacity and season-ticket holders' options.
As of now, Montana is clearly planning to hold football games with fans in Washington-Grizzly, but now full capacity will likely not be an option.
"The sweet spot we would really like to get to, to manage all of our season-ticket holders and manage our students and that kind of demand would be about 18,000 to 19,000, that would be a really good spot for us. We have not set a capacity for say, like we're shooting for 50 percent. I think those will come as we start to develop more substance to our plan."
However, with over $5 million coming from ticket sales each season, it's an understatement to say Montana needs those seats filled if the university wants a season.
"It's no secret, coach Hauck knows this, I think everyone knows this, we rely on football ticket revenue more than any of our conference or national competitors," said Haslam. "Playing without fans, it doesn't take a really brilliant businessman to recognize if you play without fans you've got all the expenses with no revenue."
On June 1, the University of Montana began the first steps of its plan as it started allowing fall student-athletes to return to campus. Other football programs like Alabama, Arkansas State and Auburn have all seen positive COVID-19 cases since players returned.
Haslam says he was relieved to see students back on campus, but also knows a positive case is nearly inevitable at this moment. What's more important is how the university responds.
"How we manage that, how we isolate, how we contact (the) trace, how we treat that, (those responses are) going to be the next test for us, there’s no doubt, just like anywhere else in society."