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Gonzaga’s athletic department budget will “take a hit” with diminished NCAA Tournament payout

UPDATED: Thu., March 26, 2020

The West Coast Conference enjoyed one its finest regular seasons and was poised, led by second-ranked Gonzaga, to make more noise – and serious dollars – in the NCAA Tournament.

But the coronavirus pandemic canceled March Madness, which in turn wiped out a huge chunk of NCAA-distributed revenue counted on by athletic departments across the country.

The NCAA will distribute $225 million – $50 million from its reserve fund and the rest from a $270 million event cancellation insurance policy – compared to a projected $600 million payout.

Of the $225 million, $53.6 million will be split evenly among 32 Division I conferences ($1.675 million per conference). The NCAA hasn’t specified how the remaining $171.4 million would be dispersed.

“We won’t know budgetarily the impact probably for a couple of months,” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. “But there’s no doubt we’re going to take a hit.”

Roth said he should know more after a WCC conference call next week.

March is usually the best time of the year for Gonzaga, its fan base and its athletic department coffers. The Zags have qualified for 22 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and they’re the only program nationally to make at least the Sweet 16 each of the previous five years.

“Our run into March every year is a big giving time, a time when our benefactors really step up and help us at significant levels,” Roth said. “It’s the time of year when we get NCAA revenues, the time of year when our sponsors and advertisers through (multimedia rights holder) Learfield IMG get the best bang for their buck.”

Gonzaga was projected as a No. 1 seed with BYU in the 5-6 range and Saint Mary’s in the 8-9 range. Schools earn one unit, expected to be worth nearly $300,000 this year, for each tournament game. If the WCC’s three entries combined for seven units, it would have amounted to roughly $2.1 million.

Units are the gift that keeps giving as they go into a six-year payment window, so $2.1 million becomes $12.6 million.

“You start doing the math, oh my gosh,” Roth said. “The windfall, and that’s paid out over the next six years, for the conference would have been pretty amazing.”

More mind-boggling numbers: Gonzaga earned 19 units from 2015 through 2019, five in the run to the 2017 national championship game. Based on an estimated $280,000 per unit, that equals nearly $32 million over a six-year window, a considerable piece of Gonzaga’s and every WCC programs’ budgets.

“We’ll still be getting units based from past performance,” Roth said, “but we won’t have any from (2020), and rolling forward the next six years that’s a really unfortunate thing when you look at the team we had and the potential we had.”

The Zags are pocketing a larger share of the tournament revenue they’ve generated under an arrangement reached with the WCC when Gonzaga was considering joining the Mountain West a few years ago. The WCC also agreed to scheduling changes and tweaked the WCC Tournament format, factors in the conference’s upswing.

Roth said he’s focused on the bigger picture on campus more than the financial implications of the coronavirus on the athletic department budget. He mentioned senior point guard Ryan Woolridge, a grad transfer from North Texas, not getting an opportunity to play in March Madness and the team missing out on playing the opening weekend at the Spokane Arena.

Roth expressed empathy for spring sports athletes who put in the time to prepare for seasons that were canceled. He mentioned students and faculty adjusting to online courses.

“We can’t let the financial focus override the personal focus, and that’s the same with the institution overall,” Roth said. “Our focus is making sure we do everything we can to help student-athletes and as an institution helping the student population, and that includes completing spring semester.”

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