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Financial implications of COVID-19 leave collegiate athletic directors in precarious positions, uncharted territory

UPDATED: Fri., April 17, 2020

Left in a financial pinch, college athletic directors across the country have been confronted with tough and uncomfortable decisions over the past few weeks.

Looming uncertainty means they’ll presumably face a few more, especially if the coronavirus pandemic stretches into the summer, conceivably threatening the fall football season.

Some athletic departments have mitigated the damage by asking a few of their highest-earning coaches to take temporary pay cuts. Others have taken more drastic measures.

For the University of Cincinnati, solving the budgetary impact of COVID-19 meant cutting the men’s soccer program that had been competing since 1973. According to a financial report obtained by ESPN, Cincinnati men’s soccer had operating losses of $726,498, and the school cited “profound challenges” and “widespread uncertainty” as reasons for discontinuing the program. Old Dominion recently dissolved its wrestling program after an independent study revealed the school could save $1 million by cutting a single varsity sport, per ESPN.

The sample size isn’t large enough to determine if the decisions made by Cincinnati and Old Dominion will point to a larger trend in college athletics. Schools that have long been looking to cut a specific sport may now have more flexibility to do so behind the guise of COVID-19, though Title IX regulations make that process more complicated than it would seem on the surface.

Athletic directors will spend the next few months assessing the damage caused by these financial shortfalls, exploring ways to trim expenses and preparing for the possibility of a lost, or altered, football season – something that would be unsalvageable for some colleges and unsettling for all of them.

WSU’s Chun: ‘It’ll be destructive’

At Washington State, Director of Athletics Pat Chun has not publicly addressed the possibility of cutting individual programs, and it’s too early to know if that would be part of the school’s blueprint. The Cougars, it’s worth noting, already sponsor two fewer sports than Cincinnati, which doesn’t offer women’s rowing as WSU does, but has men’s swimming and diving, men’s soccer and women’s lacrosse.

Still, cost containment strategies have been rolled out at WSU – Chun, President Kirk Schulz, football coach Nick Rolovich and men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith all agreed to temporary 5% pay cuts – and the department is working through various contingency plans in case the football season is altered.

“As we present a budget, we’re going to have to model out, what does a delayed football season look like, what does a truncated football season look like?” Chun said.

The most uncomfortable scenario – no season at all – still hasn’t been broached at WSU, at least from a budget-planning standpoint, because the implications are simply too severe.

“I’d argue there’s no point in us to even budget a no-football season,” Chun said, “because it’ll be destructive for our athletic program if there’s no football season.”

Chun has frequently alluded to a “moving target” because the amount of money the school will need to come up with to offset virus-related loss is still unpredictable. The Pacific-12 Conference won’t know until next month if it will dip into its reserves, which could impact the dollar amount distributed to each school.

“I think at this point there’s too many unknowns and too many uncertainties, but as we try to figure out what a budget looks like, we’re just trying to factor in as many possibilities out there,” Chun said. “But right now it’s just a vast unknown.”

WSU anticipates a 5% reduction in Pac-12 revenue distribution, which doesn’t include additional money lost from ticket sales, but Chun said the Cougar Athletic Fund is “relatively still on pace achieving our goals this year,” and the school will actually see some expense savings because teams aren’t traveling and coaches aren’t on the road recruiting.

“This is the budgeting time of year for Washington State,” Chun said. “The world continues to change. For us right now, everything is a hypothesis until students are allowed back on campus.”

– Theo Lawson

GU’s Roth: ‘So many unknowns’

Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth enjoys his job but acknowledges it’s a challenging time dealing with the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on universities and athletic departments.

“Even in good times, you’re supposed to know how to handle situations that come up, situations with 18- to 22-year-olds, the good, the bad, all these different constituencies,” Roth said. “You don’t have all the answers, but the longer you do it – 23 years in my case – it’s not like you haven’t been through a tough situation or had to deal with something completely unexpected, and you figure it out.

“None of us have gone through anything remotely like this.”

Roth knows the financial picture isn’t going to be pretty. He’s studying the multitude of scenarios that could arise in coming months, but he’s also making time for his main priority.

“You can’t lose sight of our No. 1 priority, and that’s the student-athletes,” he said. “We need to make sure we’re doing everything in our power to take care of them and yet what our student-athletes want is they want to play. Sometimes we have to be careful that it isn’t just talking about money and scheduling and filling stadiums and arenas.”

Athletic directors’ jobs are made tougher by countless factors outside of their control.

“Everything blew up on March 12 (when the NCAA Tournament was canceled) and yet there are still so many unknowns,” Roth said. “When are we going to come back to work? When are we going to let student-athletes work out in facilities? When are coaches going to be able to recruit and bring kids on campus?”

The questions keep coming.

“Now we get to August: Are we playing football? Is soccer, volleyball, cross country going to be played? Women’s soccer reports in late July or early August, but nobody knows what’s going to happen. We’re spending a lot of time talking and projecting, ‘what if this?’ or ‘what if that?’

“The one part we do know is that the NCAA distribution to the league is only 30% of what we’ve got in the past. So you come home and tell your wife, ‘You might want to cut back on the groceries because the pay check just got cut down to 30 percent.’ ”

Roth said schools will face decisions, hard ones in some cases, based on their circumstances.

“Everyone has to decide how they’re going to get through this,” he said, “but I have faith in our society, our leaders and just the will of the American people. I think we need to be focused on the right things, and right now the focus is on keeping people safe and weathering this.”

– Jim Meehan

EWU’s Hickey: ‘We can’t do it here’

Lynn Hickey wishes she bought stock in Zoom.

The Eastern Washington athletic director has been glued to the burgeoning video conference app in recent weeks, communicating with administrators and coaches – each seeking solutions in a difficult time.

The novel coronavirus has compounded the well-documented budgetary issues of the athletic department, which was facing a $5 million deficit before the pandemic.

EWU, which fielded a Big Sky Conference champion men’s basketball team this past winter, lost significant revenue from an NCAA Tournament that was canceled.

EWU ranked 10th in the 11-member Big Sky Conference in athletic department revenue – it spent $15,841,035 in the 2018 fiscal year and brought in $13,810,812 – according to a USA Today report published last August.

Now even more belt-tightening measures are being assessed, including some creative budgeting in team travel, recruiting, scheduling and other cash-heavy pursuits.

“Everything is pretty much on the table to see what you can do to mitigate expenses as best you can, and to calculate if you can do more to develop revenue,” Hickey said.

Department and coaching salaries and scholarships make up the majority of the Eagles’ budget, Hickey said. She said she doesn’t want to “diminish” scholarship spending and has been encouraged by staff members for stepping up.

Eagles football coach Aaron Best, the department’s highest-paid employee at $207,372 a season with a $10,000 increase each year of his contract through 2024, recently volunteered to donate 10% of his salary back to EWU. Hickey said she will also donate a portion of her salary, which was $168,000 in 2018, according to state records.

Hickey said the school has yet to determine if it will ask other athletic department employees to volunteer a temporary decrease in their respective salaries, like many other Division I schools have done.

“The FBS schools can do that, because they have much higher salaries,” Hickey said. “It’s a little different asking one of our assistant coaches or head coaches to do that.”

One thing EWU can’t do because of NCAA bylaws – and one thing Hickey doesn’t want to do – is drop a sport to save on costs.

“We can’t do it here. We’re at the minimum of Division I sports (14). Some Big Sky schools have 21 sports,” Hickey said. “Unless there’s a waiver from the NCAA, we wouldn’t do that. But I would hope that the one thing that we can take care of is to keep our sports program intact and protect our student scholarships.”

– Ryan Collingwood

Idaho’s Gawlik: ‘Not a snap decision’

The loss of money distributed to schools by the NCAA because the lucrative men’s basketball tournament was a casualty of coronavirus closures is in some measure driving calculations whether colleges and universities need to drop sports, University of Idaho President Scott Green said.

“I am hearing from a lot of other presidents. There is a lot of pressure on athletics … from the NCAA’s lack of funding because of the cancellation of the basketball tournament,” he said.

The next decision point for many institutions will come when it becomes clear if there will be college football next fall.

“It is still early days,” Green said.

“Everybody is looking at their budgets if there are not fall sports,” because football accounts for the lion’s share of revenue at most schools.

Idaho athletics director Terry Gawlik said dropping sports “is the last thing any of us wants to do.”

“I don’t know Cincinnati’s entire portfolio,” she said of the Bearcats eliminating men’s soccer. But she suggested the university might have been eyeing its ability to continue offering men’s soccer even as the impact of the coronavirus on college sports was first coming into focus. “This was not a snap decision,” she said.

Men’s sports are probably at greater risk of being eliminated than are women’s, Green added, because schools must maintain federally mandated equal opportunities to participate in athletics.

“Any changes will have Title IX impacts,” he said.

– Peter Harriman

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