Congressman says losing Vols football in 2020 due to COVID-19 would be economic 'atomic bomb'

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee's "Pride of the Southland" marching band forms the giant "T" before the Volunteers take the field inside Neyland Stadium before their 2018 football matchup against SEC East rival Florida.

The Tennessee Volunteers capped last football season with six consecutive victories and have seven home games scheduled this year, including visits from top rivals Alabama and Florida.

It's a 2020 season loaded with optimism for the reigning Gator Bowl champions, but it's also a 2020 season full of uncertainty due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As timetables and scenarios are being discussed by college football officials should coronavirus concerns extend into the summer months, one congressman does not want to envision an autumn without Tennessee players running through a giant "T" formed by the "Pride of the Southland" marching band.

Tim Burchett is a Republican who represents Tennessee's 2nd Congressional District, which includes Knoxville, Alcoa, Lenoir City and Maryville.

photo Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee mascot Smokey cheers with fans in the stands at Neyland Stadium during the Vols' football game against Georgia on Oct. 5, 2019.

"Economically, it would be like an atomic bomb going off," said Burchett, a Knoxville native who was mayor of Knox County for eight years. "It would be awful. It's such a huge boost to our community and our area, and I think it would be even worse morale-wise. I couldn't imagine seven Saturdays a year not being in Neyland Stadium."

Tennessee last experienced a football hiatus in 1943, when only Georgia, Georgia Tech, LSU, Tulane and Vanderbilt fielded teams within the Southeastern Conference amid the transpiring of World War II.

In 2015, Tennessee hired Tripp Umbach Consulting to perform an economic study, which revealed that the average Neyland Stadium game provided a $42 million economic impact for the Knoxville area. The study also showed that the 2015 season, when the Vols went 9-4 and walloped Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl, led the way in $73.9 million worth of revenue for Knoxville-area hotels that year and $82.5 million for Knoxville-area restaurants and bars.

photo AP file photo by Susan Walsh / Tim Burchett, the U.S. representative for Tennessee's 2nd Congressional District, believes the lack of a college football season in Knoxville would result in an "atomic bomb going off" economically.

CBS reported this week that June 1, July 1 and Aug. 1 have been mentioned as dates in which college football activities could resume, with June 1 the obvious preference because it gives coaches two months to prepare for preseason camp.

"I think by June 1 we'll have an idea," Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, whose Sooners are scheduled to host Tennessee on Sept. 12, told CBS. "It doesn't look like a whole lot is going to happen certainly before then."

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly recently told ESPN that July 1 would be the last possible date in terms of retaining the proper preseason preparation, citing the need of one month of conditioning before camp. Resuming Aug. 1 would leave preseason camp only, and anything later than that likely would result in shortened seasons or a cancellation altogether.

Late last week, ESPN analyst and former Ohio State quarterback Kirk Herbstreit said he would be shocked if there were college and NFL seasons this year given that a COVID-19 vaccine may be months away from being developed.

"We can only do what we can do," TCU coach Gary Patterson told CBS. "I would suspect that if they have to cut back the season, people are going to lose their nonconference games. That hurts the lower levels for financial reasons. Everybody is going to have to pay a price."

photo AP photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Tim Burchett, the U.S. representative for Tennessee's 2nd District, is a Knoxville native who was the mayor of Knox County for eight years before being elected to Congress in November 2018.

Burchett, a graduate of Bearden High School and Tennessee who lists trailblazing quarterback Condredge Holloway as his all-time favorite Vols player, fears the financial impact of this pandemic could result in smaller crowds at Neyland Stadium and at other venues across the country even if college football returns on time.

"I've actually got some legislation prepared dealing with encouraging folks to continue supporting their athletes through some tax breaks that they used to get but have done away with in years past," Burchett said. "Maybe there could be a one-year reprieve on that to encourage people to get back involved in their college sports. During World War II, our leaders realized that we love our sports and love our sports figures.

"It's a good release, and we rally around that. I think it's an important thing to our psyche and our mental condition that we continue to some degree of normalcy to where folks can watch sports again quickly. That would be part of the healing process."

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.