It’s hard to imagine SEC football stadiums at full capacity this fall as the coronavirus pandemic breeds uncertainty about the future of large gatherings. Sports fans and college athletes are bracing for the heartbreak of potentially not having a season when classes resume later this year.

On top of the emotional toll of missing game-day social traditions, suspending sports competitions could mean millions of dollars in lost revenue for colleges and universities that are already struggling with lower enrollment and funding. 

Thomas Smith, associate professor in the practice of finance at Emory University's Goizueta School of Business joined All Things Considered host Rickey Bevington to discuss the future of college sports.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness

Rickey Bevington Before we get to the money, walk me through some of the complications of college team sports even resuming in the fall at all.

Thomas Smith Well, here we are in Georgia. The big college sport down here is college football. But you've got to remember that this is a full contact sport. I mean, the whole idea of social distancing just doesn't make any sense when you're trying to tackle somebody. This is a virus that we're dealing with that is spread through contact. So the number one concern is how do you social distance in an environment where the idea and the nature of the game is to do the opposite of social distancing. You can't social distance and be playing full tackle.

Bevington Football revenue from the University of Georgia football program essentially funds every other women's and men's sports team at UGA. So if football revenues plummet, what happens to, say, the women's gymnastics team or the men's baseball team?

Smith To put actual numbers to the idea, the football program at UGA for 2018 - 2019 generated about $123 million dollars. And at the same time, the expenses of that program were about $49 million dollars. So football for UGA runs net positive. The basketball team, it generated $11 million dollars [in] revenue and it cost about $8 million dollars. The women's basketball team at UGA generated about $1 million dollars of revenue, but it costs $4 million dollars to actually put it out. So most every team at UGA actually runs net negative. It costs them more to actually operate the team - to put practices on, train these athletes and actually put the games in place - than the revenue that they generate. And so that money that the football program, and a little bit from the basketball program, is essentially paying for every other sport. And then there's a little bit extra. UGA maybe generates about $40 - $41 million dollars of additional revenue for the school. So not only does the football program and a lot of the basketball program pay for all of the other sports, but it also adds a little bit of money back to the school.

Bevington Are other colleges and universities in the same boat as UGA?

Smith Some schools might be running just barely net positive. Others schools, their revenue and expenses are pretty much even, like Georgia Tech. If you look at their numbers pretty much the revenue that they bring in is exactly or very close to what it costs for them to run all their programs.

Bevington Tom, do you anticipate some sports programs simply shutting down and never returning to a school?

Smith Well, that's a really good point. I could clearly imagine a scenario where, let's say, by shutting down the football program the school, the university, has a hard time finding money for the men's volleyball team or the badminton team or the curling team or something. So, sure, there [are] easily scenarios where the curling team or the badminton team just go away, like you can't run them this year. And then going forward, they just do not have the resources to bring these teams back online. So there's clearly problems there.

Bevington It's heartbreaking for college athletes right now. There are some sports, though, that can promote social distancing better than others, like fencing where you're wearing a protective mask versus maybe wrestling, which is high contact. Do you anticipate leagues and schools allowing some sports to resume, but others ... they're going to have to wait?

Smith Yeah, I actually can. I have seen some press releases from different schools about where these sports might be able to resume. You know, we can practice in this way, putting people in different parts of the field. I mean, I think schools are trying to find ways that they can safely allow their athletes to practice. Putting on competitions, though, might be very difficult.