A nationally televised college football game between Navy and Air Force at a sold-out stadium in Annapolis could become one of the more visible casualties of the U.S. government shutdown.
While Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said Tuesday that a final decision would not be reached until noon Thursday, Air Force officials issued a statement that said the game was being called off “for now” along with all other intercollegiate sports events.
Gladchuk said there was a “significant possibility” that the game would be canceled, adding that “it's going to be a setback of the highest order if this game doesn't happen.” But Gladchuk is holding out hope that the U.S. Department of Defense will allow the game to be played.
Gladchuk said the department, which oversees all three national service academies, had informed officials at Navy, Air Force and Army that there would be no intercollegiate athletics played until the shutdown is resolved.
“It's not a decision being made on the academy grounds or within the athletic department,” Gladchuk said. “It's all being driven by the Pentagon. … We're going to delay any decision on our end on Air Force until Thursday at noon.”
Gladchuk said Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael Miller is “trying to justify the rationale for reconsideration” in his discussions with the Department of Defense. Miller couldn't be reached for comment. Air Force AD Hans Mueh was unavailable, saying on his voicemail greeting that he had been furloughed.
Asked what rationale might be given for playing the game, considering that millions of government employees have been furloughed and other government institutions have been closed by the shutdown, Gladchuk pointed to the fact that the Naval Academy Athletic Association operates on private funds.
“There would be no cost to the government, there are zero appropriated funds in terms of conducting this contest at the Naval Academy,” Gladchuk said. “It has no affect on the budget of the government one way or the other. What it does is that it eliminates the opportunity for the academy to generate critical revenue to support 33 varsity sports.”
A military source told the Colorado Springs Gazette that there is a “50-50 chance” that the game will be played with Air Force using conference fees, conference TV money and ticket revenue making up for a lack of government funding.
Air Force is a member of the Mountain West Conference. Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson told the Gazette that institutions typically have $2.5 million to $3 million in conference distributions at their disposal to use as they wish.
Gladchuk said the possible cancellation has “tremendous ripple effects in regard to the community and the local economy.”
Navy was expecting a stadium record sellout of around 40,000.
Asked to gauge how much not hosting the game could cost the Naval Academy financially, Gladchuk said, “It's impossible to calculate, but it's in the millions.”
“When you look at the ticket revenue that would be returned, if you take a look at the corporate sponsorships, the hotel accommodations, the catering concessions, the parking, the restaurants in downtown Annapolis, all of our major donors were coming in, it's reunion weekend for the 1963 Cotton Bowl team and 300 reunion groups, it's clearly one of the most significant Saturdays that we could possibly orchestrate at the academy,” he said.
“It's a weekend when there's national TV that gives the academies incredible exposure and branding. ... This is something that has been planned in some cases for years with the reunions. We have over 200 recruits that we have scheduled to fly in from all over the country. It's a major league event.”
The shutdown already has impacted other Navy sports. According to Gladchuk, three coaches (swimming, gymnastics and women's cross country) have been furloughed because they are government employees, but that the teams would continue to practice under the supervision of assistants who are nongovernment employees. A men's soccer game against Howard scheduled for Tuesday was canceled.
“Everyone's practicing — the only thing is that we can't compete collegiately,” Gladchuk said.
Trying to rebound from its first loss of the season last week at Western Kentucky, the Navy football team (2-1) practiced Tuesday in preparation for Saturday's game against Air Force (1-4).
But Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo recognized the possibility that the game might not be played until later in the season, if at all. Both teams have an open date Dec. 7, a week before the Army-Navy game.
“The only thing under our control is that we've got to prepare to get ready for a game [this] Saturday,” Niumatalolo said. “At this point they said it's not going to happen, but we've got to prepare as if it's going to happen.”
Niumatalolo was an assistant coach when the government shut down in 1995 and into 1996, but Navy and the other service academy teams played.
“I don't remember it affecting us,” Niumatalolo said.
Sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who is expected to play Saturday after getting knocked out of last week's game with a head injury, said “it's definitely crossed my mind, the what if [they don't play]. I definitely would be upset at this point. This is a game we've circled. A lot of fans coming out to the game. I'm trying not to think of the negative, but I'm definitely aware that it's there.”
Maryland AD Kevin Anderson, who spent six years in the same position at Army, was stunned by the news that the Navy-Air Force game might be canceled .
“I still have a strong affinity for the service academies. ... Athletics and competition is a key pillar to what the academies are all about,” Anderson said Tuesday in College Park. “I think it would send shock waves through the West Point community and also through the country. If there's three teams that I believe this country embraces through thick and thin, it's the Air Force, Navy and Army. For them not to be able to compete this weekend is very disappointing.”
Asked about the possibility of the Army-Navy game not being played if the shutdown continued into mid-December, Anderson was blunt.
“That would be un-American,” he said.