Football key to Ohio State athletics’ financial recovery

Joey Kaufman
Ohio State's football program sells just north of $50 million in tickets during a typical season.

The usual sights were gone.

There were no players donning silver helmets, or marching band members preparing to spell “Ohio” in script, or scarlet-clad fans eager to roar for touchdowns.

When the college football season kicked off on Labor Day weekend, Ohio Stadium stood still.

The postponement of Buckeyes football games by the Big Ten upended a rite of autumn that brings hundreds of thousands of people from around the state and across the country to the venerable Horseshoe.

But without the crowds passing through the stadium turnstiles or TV cameras facing the field on fall Saturdays, the finances of Ohio State’s athletic department are also left in upheaval.

At a Board of Trustees meeting last month, the school projected a loss of $130 million in athletics revenue without a football season in the fall, an estimate that totals more than half of the athletic department’s annual operating budget.

The circumstances impose a sudden financial crunch after a decade of unimpeded growth.

“It’s going to be short-term pain,” said David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University, “but they'll have long-term gain. They'll be able to navigate this.”

Once football resumes, economic forecasts should rebound for wealthy athletic departments such as Ohio State’s. Televised games lead to lucrative multimillion-dollar media rights payouts, and if COVID-19-related social distancing measures relax, allowing fans to fill a 100,000-seat stadium, the biggest source of revenue returns. OSU sells just north of $50 million in tickets during a typical season.

In the coming months, though, challenges will persist.

The athletic department has offered scant details of the road ahead for the 2021 fiscal year, which began in July, and how it will attempt to balance its books amid nine-figure losses. Athletic director Gene Smith was not made available for this story.

Still, future steps likely involve a range of cost-cutting efforts, including possible salary reductions, furloughs or layoffs among employees, measures taken by dozens of other athletic departments across the country in recent months, though none announced at Ohio State.

Some expenses automatically drop without a football season or delayed season, such as game-day expenses, travel costs and performance bonuses for coaches.

But there are limits to the cost cuts, according to Karen Weaver, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education and a former field hockey coach at Ohio State.

“It's a few million here, a few million there,” Weaver said. “It doesn't add up to $130 million.”

The department must cover fixed costs, which could require more-extensive action. With athletes across 36 varsity sports teams on scholarship, it pays tuition and stipends for living expenses regardless of the fate of their seasons. Annual debt payments are also required. According to Ohio State’s latest revenue and expense filing with the NCAA, it has $250.7 million in athletics-related debt.

Weaver raised the possibility of Ohio State refinancing its debt to reduce the annual payments and pay them over a longer stretch of time. The debt-service payment during the 2019 fiscal year totaled $25.5 million.

The department might still need greater forms of financial assistance, from borrowing money to receiving subsidies, to avoid sinking deep into the red.

The department could take out a loan from the university on the promise of repayment through expected media rights payouts, among other future revenues. The Big Ten’s TV contract remains in effect for several more years.

“My guess is that it would be something like, ’we’re giving you $50 million,’ and there might be some schedule that you're expected to pay back at least $10 million a year,” Ridpath said.

A loan from the university, rather than banks or other large lenders, would likely offer more favorable terms, Ridpath said.

But subsidies would represent a rare step for Ohio State’s athletic department, which has prided itself on being self-sufficient for more than a decade, forgoing student fees, university funding and state government support that are all commonplace in the college sports industry.

Brian Turner, a professor of sports management at Ohio State and a member of the school’s athletic council, thought subsidies would have to at least be considered for short-term funding as part of last-resort options.

“In the times we’re in, every area has to look at some temporary solutions,” Turner said. “Will this be a long-term idea, where the university subsidizes athletics? I seriously doubt that.”

The timing of such support would be less than ideal.

The university is already dealing with pandemic-related losses and enacted $252.2 million in budget cuts for its entire operating budget for this fiscal year.

But it still might be able to provide some respite.

“They’re still able to generate much more than the athletic department can,” Ridpath said, “especially if football isn't played this year.”

During the spring, Smith said he thought the department could dip into its reserves to stem potential losses.

That was before the football season appeared in serious jeopardy, with only the NCAA men’s basketball tournament impacted.

With about $10 million set aside, Ohio State’s reserve fund is limited, able to cover only a fraction of its estimated losses.

It’s rare for athletic departments to have sizable rainy day funds. A survey this year by the LEAD1 Association, which represents Division I athletic directors, found that only 41% of athletic departments in the Power Five conferences maintain financial reserves.

Those that are part of public universities often have other protections.

“The university is part of a state system that has all these safety nets built around,” Weaver said.

Until perhaps now, the money-making ability of Ohio State football has allowed the athletic department to avoid them.

“It's absolutely been remarkable how much their program has been able to sustain through the Great Recession 12 years ago and all the different iterations, because of the media moneys for sure, but also the resiliency of the Buckeye fan base,” Weaver said.

“They are at or near sellouts for almost every game. And that's remarkable in every situation. Games have gotten more and more expensive with parking and everything else. So it is truly remarkable that finally they've reached a point where, OK, it's going to take a pandemic for us to really look at how we spend money, not just how we can make money.”