With uncertainty cast over the upcoming college football season and other lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Ohio State's athletic department began a new fiscal year on July 1 with a two-month interim budget.
Speaking with reporters on a conference call last week, athletic director Gene Smith said it mirrored a similar interim budget that was put in place for the entire university for the first two months of the 2021 fiscal year.
The budgets were approved by the board of trustees in June.
"We have been pretty fluid with this," Smith said. "As we get more understanding of what our future looks like, relative to all of our events, we’ll be more definitive with our budget."
It is rare for OSU’s athletic department to be without a budget for the full fiscal year. Each May, administrators submit a budget projection for the upcoming fiscal year to the athletic council, a governing committee comprised of faculty members, students and alumni, among others.
But the presentation was not held this year as the pandemic began leaving some doubt on the football season, which generates a majority of the department’s revenue and remains critical for a budget that has totaled more than $200 million in recent years.
Smith said last week that he had grown "very concerned" over the season’s fate, citing the spike in reported cases of COVID-19, after he had harbored cautious optimism this spring.
Details of the athletic department’s interim budget, which runs through Aug. 31, are not known, as Ohio State has not responded to a public records request that was filed last month by The Dispatch seeking a review of its financial outlook.
In a letter addressed to the university community in June, then-president Michael V. Drake wrote that the school needed to cut $58 million from the university-wide budget during the first two months of the 2021 fiscal year.
That budget did not set a line item for athletics, and Smith did not disclose the scale of the department’s potential cuts for July and August. The summer months are usually a slow time on the sports calendar, as teams typically do not begin their seasons until mid-to-late August.
Any larger cuts for the athletic department would likely come once the budget for the remaining 10 months of the fiscal year is determined.
Smith said none of those potential cuts include dropping teams or reducing the salaries of coaches, and he referenced virtual technology as a method for reducing travel. But he remained short on further specifics for cost-cutting strategies.
Other issues have been more preoccupying for him and administrators in recent weeks, particularly the announcement Thursday by the Big Ten to cancel nonconference football games this fall.
"When we’re able to get to a point to objectively, reasonably look at those things, I think some of those changes will occur," Smith said when asked about looming budget concerns. "Right now, it’s very difficult to do because we’re all kind of locked into the challenge of positioning ourselves to make leadership-type decisions in the present.
"It's very difficult to look down the road when you have COVID and social justice issues and NIL (name, image, likeness) looming. It’s a number of things. We’re just kind of drinking water through a fire hose at this point."
Projections from other Big Ten athletic departments paint a foreboding financial outlook for Ohio State.
Michigan, which also maintains one of the biggest moneymaking programs in the country, projected a $26.1 million deficit for the 2021 fiscal year at its board of regents meeting in June.