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US college sports face critical juncture as Covid-19 cancellations mount

Iowa State plays against Notre Dame last year in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Florida. Numerous colleges are facing heightened economic pressure due to sports event cancellations stemming from Covid-19, and Iowa State in particularly is projecting $40m in unfunded expenses if the school is unable to stage fall sports and garner revenue from them. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

  • College sports particularly vulnerable due to reliance on gate revenue, inability to construct professional-level quarantined environments
  • Cutbacks have already included furloughs, salary reductions, elimination of sports
  • Self-sustaining nature of many athletic departments heightens economic tension

The leadership at the University of Illinois is trying to keep a stiff upper lip amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The school, like the rest of the Big Ten Conference, is currently planning to proceed with its fall sports schedule, even though it has moved to a conference-only schedule to reduce travel and limit spread of the virus.

The school is also limiting attendance at its Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, to 20 per cent of the full capacity, representing an new upper limit of about 12,000 people for its football games. Additional planned safety protocols include a ban on pre-game tailgating, increase sanitization at the school’s athletic facilities, and socially distanced seating.

But even with all that planning, preparation, and hope, there are still many dangers and pitfalls surround the school, and college sports at large.

“When it comes to college athletics this fall, there are just a lot of questions that cannot be answered completely at this juncture,” says Robert Jones, University of Illinois chancellor.

The news is already much worse in many other pockets of college sports around the United States, and has left that part of the sports industry among the most vulnerable as the pandemic continues to grow in strength around the country.

Three conferences in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association – the Ivy League, Patriot League, and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference – have each announced plans to cancel all of their fall sports. Those cancellations follow a shutdown earlier this year of the NCAA’s entire spring sports season.

Stanford University, perennially an industry leader and a pillar of the Pac-12 Conference, recently moved to cut 11 of its sports as updated financial forecasts at the school project athletic department losses of nearly $70m over the next three years, with even deeper losses if more games are lost during the 2020-21 sports seasons.

Power Five conferences such as the Big Ten and Pac-12 that dominate the landscape in college sports have eliminated non-conference play this fall, with their peers expected to follow suit in the coming days. 

And by late July, those decisions may be followed by more drastic ones as to whether or not to play at all, and in particular whether the pandemic and the American response to it will allow the national obsession that is US college football to happen in 2020.

“We are running out of time to correct and get things right,” said Greg Sankey, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, on ESPN Radio.

Elsewhere around colleges and universities, other cutback measures such as staff furloughs, pay reductions, and smaller cuts of sports programs have become increasingly commonplace.

A specific estimate of the aggregate financial hit on US college sports due to Covid-19 has not been tabulated, and cannot yet due the now near-daily run of additional announcements of cancellations, cutbacks, and other operational adjustments. But the $10.3bn in total revenue generated by NCAA athletic departments in 2018, the most recent year available, is already in the midst of a drastic reduction in 2020.

“If we are unable to play sports this fall, the athletic department would incur approximately $40m in unfunded expenses in the next six months,” wrote Jamie Pollard, athletics director at Iowa State, a member of the Big 12 Conference, in an open letter released earlier this week. 

“The remedies to having unfunded financial obligations are significant and would require us to explore options that may include operational reductions or eliminations, layoffs, and even elimination of sport programs,” Pollard wrote.

The NCAA on July 16 released an updated set of guidelines and minimum testing standards to aid with managing competition amid the pandemic. The guidelines, developed with the aid of medical professionals, seek to provide schools and their administrators a set tools to help guide adjusted operations. Among the more notable elements are testing within 72 hours of competition for players in high-contact sports such as football, basketball, hockey, and lacrosse.

But NCAA president Mark Emmert acknowledged such efforts are currently fighting a losing battle against rising case numbers across much of the US.

“Today, sadly, the data points in the wrong direction,” Emmert says. “If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic.”

The reasons for the heightened economic and operational vulnerability of college sports due to Covid-19 are plainly evident. Though the Power Five conferences in particular enjoy robust media revenue, they remain comparatively more dependent than pro sports leagues on gate revenue, as well as on private donations that also are heavily tied to games happening with fans in attendance. 

And unlike the pro sports leagues that are each private commercial entities, the more limited resources and educational nature of college sports makes it essentially impossible for schools to construct a “bubble” or other type of highly quarantined environment in which to resume play. 

“If you look at what’s happening in pro sports, there’s a highly insulated environment with heavy testing, lots of use of resources and infrastructure,” says Wayne Frederick, Howard University president and chair of the MEAC’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors. “In all of those circumstances, that bubble that has been created really excludes everybody else [not involved with the games]. And on university campuses, that’s going to be really difficult to replicate.”

NCAA president Mark Emmert (r): “If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic.” (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Safety Versus Dollars

Frederick says that “most certainly, we’re going to take some kind of financial hit” by the MEAC’s cancellation of fall sports. The decision in particular wiped out this year’s iterations of the MEAC-SWAC Challenge and Celebration Bowl in football that are both televised on ESPN networks. But he insisted fiscal concerns were not at the heart of the move, or even to close to it.

The decision, he says, was made “without any consideration, really, for the financial impact…Health and safety was the primary driver, and to be quite honest, the only driver”.

For the larger Power Five conferences and member schools, however, the situation is not so simple, even as they also want to do everything possible to ensure student-athlete safety. With their bigger size and bigger revenues also come bigger financial risks, and Pollard in his letter detailed the tension he and his colleagues now face.

“The financial impact we are facing stretches beyond our department and its employees,” he wrote. “The ramifications would also be devastating for the state, university, and local community. Many residents and area businesses rely upon our events for their economic survival.

“In addition, the financial disruption caused by not having a football season would have an overwhelming negative impact on the safety and well-being of the 475 student-athletes we support. The revenue generated by the department to provide the academic, medical, nutritional, and athletic support that is relied upon by our student-athletes. That is why we are so committed to trying to find a solution to safely play college sports,” Pollard wrote.

Ed Orgeron, head coach of NCAA defending national football champions Louisiana State, made a somewhat similar plea.

“We need to play. This state needs it. This country needs it,” Orgeron said. “This [virus] can be handled…Football is the lifeblood of our country. It gets everything going, the economy going, the economy of Baton Rouge and the economy of the state of Louisiana.”

To do so, there is not necessarily a simple fix for most US university athletic departments by taking on debt or shifting funds from other university departments to cover the current revenue shortfalls. Several individual conferences, including the Mountain West, Conference USA, and Sun Belt, and other college sports did recently receive loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program created earlier this year to aid small businesses during the pandemic. 

But in some cases such as that of Pollard and Iowa State working at public universities, state laws prohibit incurring debt for operating expenses. And many athletic departments are intended to function entirely on their own economically without siphoning funds from other parts of their respective schools.

“While Stanford may be perceived to have limitless resources, the truth is we do not,” wrote Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne, provost Persis Drell, and director of athletics Bernard Muir in announcing the school’s cutbacks. “In general, athletics has been a self-sustaining entity on our campus, and we are striving to preserve that model in a time when budgetary support for our academic mission is already under significant stress.”

In the meantime, many college sports administrators are simply looking to take as much time as possible before needing to make more serious decisions about the fall season and beyond. But that time is running short.

“We are at a pivotal point in our athletics department history now,” says Ray Tanner, University of South Carolina athletics director. “A return to normal will not happen this fall. We are trying to determine what the new ‘normal’ will be.”

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