For the past several weeks, I have been accumulating articles on College sports and the challenges they face financially in the short term. I worked in Division I athletics for four years, three decades ago, so I have at least a feel for what schools are going through and it’s not good.
Prompted by a well-written and researched column on this general topic by the Union-Tribune’s Mark Ziegler which ran June 14, I pulled my notes out and began work on this section. Ziegler’s piece concentrated primarily on San Diego State University and the revenue cuts their athletic department was facing, including a reduction of revenue from student fees that could approach $2 million. Combined with the loss of $1 million from the athletic department’s share of the 2020 NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament which wasn’t held, and another $1 million dollar loss in revenues due to cutbacks from the State of California and you’re up to $4 million. That represents a seven and one-half percent reduction for the Aztec’s $54 million annual sports budget, before the fate of football is determined and whether or not fans can watch games in person this fall.
The economic model for major college athletics is football and men’s basketball are the only two sports which consistently make money. Revenue from the two sports pay for what used to be called ‘non-revenue sports’ and are now called ‘Olympic Sports.’ There are some exceptions to the revenue-generating model, such as Tennessee Women’s Basketball, Florida State’s Softball, and a handful of other programs which make money.
Using SDSU again as an example, the Aztecs field 19 varsity teams, six for men and 13 for women. If Aztec Football doesn’t generate income at its usual level, the men will still have six teams to comply with NCAA regulations for minimum sports sponsored, while the women will still have 13 teams to satisfy Federal Government Title IX requirements for equal sports opportunities for men and women. However, budgets within all Aztec sports will be slashed to the bone. The large number of athletes on a football squad create the disparity in the number of men’s and women’s teams at SDSU.
A couple of other examples of how different universities approach intercollegiate athletics include:
Ohio State sponsors 37 sports teams, 18 for men and 19 for women. The last available numbers for athletic department income were for the 2018 season, where the football team generated $110 million in revenue, with expenses of $46 million. As a whole, the athletic department generated $205 million, as they benefit by being recipients of $50 million from the Big 10 Television network annually. The athletic department income at Ohio State is almost four times that of SDSU.
The University of Texas at Austin sponsors 18 teams, eight for men and 10 for women. Football was credited with generating $144.5 million of the athletic department’s $219 million in income in 2018. Department expenses were $206.5 million
Harvard University sponsors 40 teams, 20 each for men and women, but the Ivy League does not award athletic scholarships. With an overall school endowment of $40.9 billion, the Harvard athletic department probably isn’t challenged financially.
Of the four examples cited above, three of the four rely heavily on football revenue to pay for the Olympic Sports offerings. My educated guess is there will be a further separation from the Power Five Conferences and everyone else in 2020. I think the Atlantic Coast, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12, and Southeastern Conferences will play at least a representative schedule this year, perhaps confining their games to conference play only. Those schools have the resources to provide COVID-19 testing to their players and their staffs. Also, these programs have enough personnel to help create a safe environment for their athletes.
The Power Five Conferences noted above have been separating themselves from the rest of the NCAA member schools for several years, and many columnists have predicted those conferences will form their own football-driven coalition. The next level of conferences including the Mountain West, where SDSU competes, are going to be severely challenged on the COVID-19 safety front. And revenues will suffer as attendance declines. The other NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Conferences, which are typically located in smaller markets, include the American Athletic, Conference USA, the Mid-American and the Sun Belt.
A few football coaches, particularly those representing major programs in the South, have already declared there will be a full season of college football. But if you are the 95th kid on a 100-man roster at Clemson, are you going to jeopardize your health for the Tigers? That may be a bad example, but you get the idea. There will be pressure to play a full college football season from all directions, with a lot of athletic department jobs and roster spots likely to be eliminated if fans aren’t in the stands cheering in their normal numbers.