It is an issue that terrifies college athletic directors and looms as the biggest reason football is likely to be played on campuses this fall.
The college football season is scheduled to start in about three months, and the prospect of a fall without football is a doomsday scenario for athletic programs’ bottom lines.
“I will tell you that if there’s no football, there will be athletic programs that shutter,” an athletic director of a Power Five conference school told The Dispatch on the condition of anonymity.
In general, the college administrators interviewed for this story are increasingly optimistic that football, in some form, will be played.
They are heartened that college facilities will gradually reopen this month. They believe players are at low risk demographically for the worst effects of COVID-19 and that players want to play even if it means being quarantined and enduring other sacrifices. They are optimistic that medical and public officials eventually will give the green light to play by the fall.
“I’d say 90%,” the athletic director said of the chances of having a season. “You look at the numbers, and the curve (of COVID-19 cases) is going down. You’ve also got research that shows that during the summer months it’s probably going to go down even more, though you have to see what behaviors are.”
Todd Stewart, the athletic director at Western Kentucky, is among those sharing in that optimism.
“The conversations we’re having today are much different than the conversations we were having two months ago,” he said. “And I’m confident that the conversations we’re having two months from now will even be better than the ones we’re having today.
“While we have to take this (virus) seriously, and we will, we also know a lot more about it in terms of who it impacts the most and who doesn’t. I think that’s given everybody a little bit more ability to manage through it.”
But even realistic best-case scenarios for the 2020 season will result in a substantial amount of financial pain. Football provides most of the athletic-department revenue at the vast majority of schools. And in recent years, most athletic departments have finished in the red. Remove a significant amount of football revenue, and the situation becomes dire.
A decrease in revenue looks unavoidable because attendance will be limited dramatically because of social-distancing requirements. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said recently that he can foresee a range of 20,000 to 50,000 fans allowed in Ohio Stadium, which has a capacity of almost 105,000.
The math isn’t complicated. Last year, Ohio State generated more than $50.5 million in ticket sales. If attendance is limited to half-capacity, that’s a revenue decline of at least $25 million. And that doesn’t factor in revenue declines in program, novelty, parking and concession sales, which brought in almost $5.8 million in 2019.
Even if no fans are permitted to attend, colleges will be under pressure to play to be able to collect money from their conference’s television contracts. Football media rights were worth $34 million last year for Ohio State.
“So you have to play,” the AD from a Power Five school said. “That’s the reality.”
But athletic directors are bracing for the possibility of a shortened season. A conference-only schedule is a distinct possibility.
“I’m one would be surprised if we have a complete schedule,” another athletic director from a Power Five conference school told The Dispatch.
That AD said that if football isn’t played at all, most programs will have to shut down all of their sports with the possible exception of men’s and women’s basketball, if those two combined project to at least break even financially.
No matter what, an era of austerity seems certain to replace the lavish college-sports spending on salaries and facilities that has lasted a generation. Since COVID-19 really hit in March, 19 varsity teams from the so-called Group of Five conferences and 97 at all four-year colleges have been eliminated. That is likely to accelerate, even if the savings from such cuts often are overestimated.
“I understand the panic,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor and expert on the business of college sports. “It’s an absolutely horrific situation for them.
“But I think that the potential silver lining here is that they’ll take a hard look at their (economic) practices and find all sorts of ways to save money going forward. They can then have a leaner and meaner operation that they’ll be able to save money on in the future.”
With 36 sports, Ohio State takes pride in having the largest athletics program in the country. Asked on May 20 if dropping sports was a possibility, OSU’s Smith said, “Of course, those discussions have occurred, but we haven’t gotten to that level of depth.”
Smith told The Dispatch on Thursday that he agrees with Zimbalist’s assessment that a retrenchment in spending will be forced on athletic programs. He said Ohio State instituted austerity measures even before the pandemic hit, including a hiring freeze.
“We haven’t filled those positions,” he said. “Then you’re looking at your travel costs. Do you bus or do you fly? You look at your meals. You look at all the little line-item expenditures you would take out in any budget, just like you do at home, and try to reduce those costs.”
How deep the cuts will have to be is impossible to gauge without knowing the extent of the financial hit from the upcoming football season.
“Our challenge now is that there’s too much uncertainty,” Smith said. “You’re trying to protect the experience of the student-athlete. I know everybody’s trying to run these scenarios, but there’s so many things we just don’t know.”
Athletic directors are formulating contingency plans. At Western Kentucky, Stewart said his are labeled green, yellow and red.
“You want to stay out of the red,” he said.
The problem is that the college sports financial model is not designed for a situation programs are now facing. No other crisis has come close to this one in terms of a challenge.
Their options are limited. Salary cuts for coaches — Ohio State paid more than $39 million in 2019 to all of its coaches — is an obvious possibility. But that or staff reductions only save so much.
Most athletic departments will be unable to turn to their universities for help because colleges are facing major financial issues as well. State governments also are strapped and won’t be a source of help.
Renegotiating television contracts is also a non-starter. Cable companies and networks are struggling. ESPN, for instance, is owned by Disney, which has been hurt by the halt in the tourism and entertainment businesses.
“DirecTV, DISH, Comcast are all losing subscribers on a pretty steady rate, so I don’t know that a renegotiation now would actually help anybody,” an AD said. “You’d probably lose money if you decided to renegotiate.”
The other AD said that athletic programs might have to ask for loans, relying on the current low interest rates and the expectation that the financial picture will improve as the pandemic fades.
In the meantime, they’re bracing for pain.
The financial hit that’s coming this fall will make that situation even worse. But it will also make it necessary for them to have some semblance of season to salvage what they can.
“I think it’s catastrophic for them. But it’s not going to be their death knell,” Zimbalist said. “There will be colleges — smaller colleges, liberal-arts colleges — that just go out of business.
“But Big Ten sports is not going to disappear. It might be the case that when we have a conversation in five years, instead of having 36 sports, Ohio State will only have 26 sports.”
But Zimbalist understands how difficult spending reductions will be.
“It’s easy for me to say, ‘Cut, cut, cut, cut,’ ” he said. “It’s not so easy for (Gene Smith) to do that because he’s responding to basically stakeholders who need to see him be successful in creating a winning enterprise.
“If he called me up and said, ‘What should I do?’ I'd say get on the phone with the other ADs in the Big Ten and talk together about what kind of a model makes sense going forward so he doesn’t have to do some of these cuts all by himself.”
In whatever form, cuts almost certainly are coming. One of the ADs said it is overdue.
“This pandemic is going to be the reason that a lot of schools right-size their program based on the economics of college athletics,” he said, referring to some schools that have already cut programs.
“They need to do it financially. You can’t be all things to all people. There’s only 10 or 12 schools in the country that are in the black.
This year, there might be none.