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Why canceling games is often wise, even if the storm won’t hit the stadium

The stadium itself might be fine, but that doesn’t mean we need tens of thousands of fans driving across a state during a hurricane.

Arkansas v Auburn Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

College football teams across the country have had to either move, cancel, or postpone their games amid the threat of a hurricane quite a bit in recent years. And from monitoring forecasts to checking game contractsthere’s a lot that goes into making these decisions.

Sure, there’s a lot of uncertainty that comes with hurricanes — they change paths quickly, and some areas forecasted to get hit the hardest may be just fine over the course of a few days.

Often, people wonder why game cancelations are made several days in advance, given the unpredictability of these storms. Some college towns will end up being just fine, right?

But the process of postponing, moving, or canceling matchups involves much more than just whether a football game might still be playable.

Oh yeah, and let’s not forget this is a natural disaster — not exactly something to be taken lightly.

The safety of players and fans is one of the first things athletic directors and school officials think about.

“There’s a number of things to keep in consideration,” UCF executive associate AD David Hansen, who has experience with weather impacting games, told SB Nation.

“Number one: the people that have to travel to your town for the game. The visiting team, the game officials, television personnel — is it feasible for those people to travel? Are there hotel rooms available before, but maybe they aren’t available now because first responders have come into your community? Is it safe for them to travel?

“There’s a lot of logistics there that you have to have firm commitments for, and either before or after a storm, it’s impossible to commit to a football game.”

The Knights’ home game in 2017 against Memphis was canceled ahead of Irma, later rescheduled to Sept. 30.

And during a natural disaster, first responders shouldn’t have to worry about big sporting events elsewhere in the state.

“We have over 1,000 people who support us during a football game, from police to first responders to parking attendants — you name it,” Hansen said.

“Without any of those groups, it makes it very difficult to host an event of that magnitude. And you’ve got to keep in mind before or after a storm, their priorities change from a sporting event to supporting their communities or neighboring communities.”

“We had meetings [Tuesday] with the city manager and some other people with the city,” Florida AD Scott Stricklin told SB Nation in 2017 after the Gators’ game against Northern Colorado was canceled. “People from the local fire department, the local fire chief were involved in that. There are like 17 government agencies working that are involved in gamedays here.”

It’s much smarter to make a decision earlier in the week, rather than later, Hansen adds.

“To host the event, you’ve gotta get commitments from those different groups that support you on gameday,” Hansen said.

“It’s not just a three-hour event. It’s an all-day event, essentially. And the key part there is your first responders. You cannot have a game without fire rescue, security. It’s just impossible. It was difficult to get that on a Monday or even a Tuesday.”

“The travel logistics have to be made in advance,” he added. “And also being able to predict where [first responders] will be on a Saturday right after a storm or before a storm is impossible.”

A lot of times, campuses are used as staging areas for the National Guard, too.

They’re large pieces of land with lots of facility space and other essentials.

UCF’s campus and the football stadium played host for the National Guard after Hurricane Irma moved through Florida in 2017. The Knights were scheduled to play Georgia Tech at home the Saturday after Irma, but the game was canceled — partially due to the National Guard’s presence.

“At that point we sort of looked at each other and said ‘first of all, a number of our student-athletes are not here,’” Hansen said, citing head coach Scott Frost allowing some of his players to go home before the storm. “We’ve gotta find a way to get them back to campus safely, while the entire state was affected by the hurricane.”

“And then number two, we’ve got now over 1,000 National Guardsmen from Florida and Georgia that’s taken residence in our stadium,” Hansen continued. “So it quickly became evident that it would be pretty much impossible to host a football game that next Saturday.”

Campuses also give students designated ride-out areas, as well as offering up parking garages for students to park their cars during storms. That’s a much bigger university priority than accommodating fans who come to campus for a football game.

“They never said ‘no we’re not available,’” Hansen said of UCF’s usual first responders. “They said ‘we’ll be there for you, but again, we don’t know what’s in front of us the next couple of days. We don’t know what we’ll be asked to do. We have a pretty good idea of the situation in Orlando, but we may be called to another community.’”

Sure, navigating game cancelations isn’t the easiest thing to do.

There are clauses in game contracts regarding cancelations, for starters. From the contract for the 2017 Miami-Arkansas State game, obtained by SB Nation:

This contract shall be void with respect to any of the games in the event that it becomes impossible to play such game(s) by reason of unforeseen catastrophe or disaster such as fire, flood, earthquake, war, [epidemic] confiscation, by order of government, military, or public authority of prohibitory or injunctive orders of any competent judicial or other government authority. Notice of such catastrophe or disaster shall be given as soon as possible. No such cancellation shall affect the parties/ obligations as to subsequent games covered by this contract. Any games not played as scheduled shall be rescheduled as such exigencies may dictate or permit.

(Arkansas State didn’t accept the Canes’ interpretation and sued.)

And it’s not always seamless — especially when conference games are changed:

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused Florida and LSU not to play a game in Gainesville as scheduled. They could’ve just canceled, but the SEC ruled that to be eligible for the conference championship game, a team had to play a full conference schedule. (Meaning: Florida needed to make up the game in order to get drubbed later by Alabama.)

The schools spent a few days sniping at each other in the press, with some LSU people accusing Florida of running scared for putting off a home game and some Florida people (including the head coach) accusing LSU of being insensitive to tragedy.

A whole saga ensued. In the end, Florida and LSU bought out non-conference games later in the year against South Alabama and Presbyterian, who just played each other.

But family and safety are much bigger than a game of football.

Hurricanes cause massive, widespread destruction. Families can get displaced, people lose loved ones, and some have their homes destroyed. Disasters are unpredictable, and sometimes aren’t as bad as forecasted — but they can also be worse.

“You have to put things in perspective, and I think we do a pretty good job of that,” Hansen said. “Obviously our job in intercollegiate athletics, a football game is one of the most important events that we put on, and a big part of what we do.

“But when you’re threatened by a storm, or a natural disaster, or something that’s maybe more real life, then your priorities change very quickly. Everyone has families.”

As a Florida native who’s experienced these storms firsthand, I can tell you they’re no joke. There’s no football game, no matter how important, that should supersede safety. Period.