Glad-handing should be in full swing now. Private dinners. Box seats at the spring football game. A suite for a concert at the Schottenstein Center.
Had the coronavirus pandemic spared the United States, Gene Smith would have been hitting the fundraising circuit. Spring is the time of year for Ohio State to raise tens of millions of dollars for its mammoth athletic department.
Instead, Smith, OSU's athletic director, chats with boosters on Zoom videoconferences that have replaced canceled events and softens high-dollar requests as economic uncertainty trails the public-health crisis.
“We're very sensitive to what others are going through,” Smith said. “We're not as aggressive as we have historically been.”
Smith, who has led Ohio State's athletic department for 15 years, believes the fiscal fallout will prove more impactful than the one from the Great Recession of the late 2000s and the early 2010s.
“This one is a lot more devastating,” he said.
Though boasting one of the largest departments in the nation, Ohio State is unlikely to be immune from the financial challenges confronting the college sports industry in the coming months. Some have already been felt amid the pandemic.
Along with fewer fundraising opportunities, payouts from the NCAA men's basketball tournament decreased after the postseason was called off and the cancellation of the spring football game — it would have been played on Saturday — kept the school from collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket sales.
Smith still expects the department's budget to “end up in a good spot” when this fiscal year ends June 30 — and after it finished in the red in the previous reporting year. It will be spared from expenses that can add up during a busy spring sports season.
But challenges persist beyond this summer.
“The question mark is football,” said Tom McMillen, president and chief executive of the Lead1 Association, a trade group that represents athletic directors from the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools. “Football is the big elephant in the room.”
The spread of COVID-19 has caused uncertainty about whether the season will kick off as scheduled in late August.
McMillen, a Rhodes Scholar and former basketball All-American at the University of Maryland, hosts virtual town hall meetings each week with dozens of athletic directors, including Smith. They have discussed a wide spectrum of possibilities that range from staging football games without fans in the stands to a truncated, delayed or canceled season.
Ohio State President Michael V. Drake mentioned in a radio interview last week that the season “won't be the same as it was last year,” a fate that will leave ripple effects.
Just as Buckeyes football is immensely popular across the state and a cultural touchstone for Columbus, it is the cash cow for an athletic department that is self-sufficient. It receives no subsidies from the university.
“Football funds this giant program and all 36 sports,” said Ty Tucker, Ohio State's longtime men's tennis coach.
In the 2019 fiscal year, Ohio State's powerhouse football program brought in $115.1 million of the athletic department's $210.5 million in revenue, according to figures reported to the NCAA and obtained by The Dispatch through a public-records request.
Men's basketball, the second-biggest revenue-producing sport, accounted for $24.9 million, a quarter of the total made from football.
Those were the only sports that turned a profit, and men's basketball, which yielded $12.5 million, was dwarfed by football, which made $55 million.
The returns support additional sports that range from baseball to a successful synchronized swimming program that won a third straight national championship last year. They were all in the red in the most recent reporting year, with combined losses of more than $40 million.
The Buckeyes field more teams than nearly all of their peers. Among schools in the five major conferences, only Stanford sponsors as many varsity sports. Each school boasts 36.
For a comparison, Clemson, which defeated the Buckeyes in a College Football Playoff semifinal last December, sponsors 19 varsity sports.
“It is definitely a pride point in the philosophy of offering as many opportunities as possible,” said Brian Turner, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio State and a former member of the university's athletic council.
To further that end, Ohio State has poured significant resources into its so-called nonrevenue sports programs.
Last year, it opened the Covelli Center for the volleyball and wrestling teams, among other sports. The price tag was $49 million. The university is currently building the Ty Tucker Tennis Center, an indoor tennis facility, at $22 million.
If this fall's football games are canceled, postponed or even held with a reduced capacity, the athletic department would be left without millions of dollars that were realized in pre-pandemic times.
Crowds of 100,000 fans at Ohio Stadium have generated ticket sales worth more than $50 million a season, in addition to parking, concessions and additional merchandise sales.
Ticket buying is the biggest source of revenue tied to football, followed by media rights revenue from the Big Ten's lucrative TV contract. In the 2019 fiscal year, Ohio State received $45.6 million from the conference.
Attendance issues could arise from several factors. The economic uncertainty slowing fundraising efforts this spring also has affected season-ticket sales. The school extended the renewal period by a month through April, along with postponing payment deadlines.
Ohio State has not released renewal figures from the period, though one department official recently remarked that sales were “going well,” and Smith said only 10 people had requested reimbursements after initially opting to renew their seats.
Last season, Ohio State sold 50,868 nonstudent season tickets.
Even if renewal goals are met during a time in which the stock market has plunged, payments would be refunded if the games are not played.
Some also wonder about the psyche of fans in the wake of a pandemic that has forced people to huddle in isolation as part of social distancing measures implemented to quell the spread of the coronavirus.
“Are fans going to want to come back and sit with 100,000 people?” Turner said.
In a poll released Thursday by Seton Hall University, nearly three-fourths of respondents said they would not attend sporting events in person until a vaccine was available for COVID-19.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has estimated it might take at least a year for a vaccine to develop.
When Smith spoke with reporters on a conference call Friday, he said the athletic department had crafted a budget for a 2021 fiscal year that takes place under “normal circumstances.”
Smith did not forecast a decline in revenue because other contingency plans had yet to be developed, including projections for “worst-case scenarios.”
Each May, Ohio State submits its budget projection for the upcoming fiscal year to the athletic council for review.
Most of his peers are bracing for a financial hit. According to athletic directors who participated in a survey with LEAD1, 63% expect a worst-case scenario that will involve a 20% drop in revenues during the 2021 fiscal year.
To help recover from a budget shortfall, Smith said the athletic department is prepared to lean on its rainy day fund, approximating $10.3 million was held in reserves.
Some cost-saving measures had been in effect before the pandemic, including a hiring freeze across the athletic department as it sought to curb expenses.
Spending has nearly doubled the past decade in the aftermath of the recession of 2008. Revenues from the football program go toward other sports, but a lot of money still goes toward football.
Some schools have taken further steps to reduce costs. Iowa State cut the salary of football coach Matt Campbell and other coaches by 10%, along with suspending bonus pay.
Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, expects salary reductions will become “kind of a standard thing” across college sports and academia, particularly for multimillion-dollar coaches and administrators.
Smith said he had not discussed taking similar steps at Ohio State. Along with a facilities arms race, coaching salaries and growing support staffs have been among the rising costs for the Buckeyes' athletic departments the past decade.
In February, OSU extended football coach Ryan Day's contract through 2026 and raised his pay to $5.4 million next season. Four of Day's assistants will also make $1 million or more in 2020.
Not until 2018 did the Buckeyes have an assistant coach earning a salary in seven figures.
If the pandemic has a prolonged effect on Ohio State and the wider college sports industry, economists expect only further belt-tightening in all areas.
“Programs will be forced to identify some of their needless expenditures,” Zimbalist said. “Maybe they'll become leaner and meaner programs.”