Survey: College athletic directors bracing for financial crisis

Athletic directors at major football schools predict a worst-case scenario in which revenues drop at least 20 percent in the next school year.
Published April 3, 2020

Athletic directors at the nation’s biggest college sports schools are bracing for a potential financial crisis related to the coronavirus pandemic.

According to a survey released Thursday by LEAD1, an association of athletic directors from 130 major football schools, 63 percent forecast a worst-case scenario in which their revenues decrease by at least 20 percent during the 2020-21 school year. Even an abbreviated football season could cause schools to lose that much.

LEAD1 and Teamworks, a company that created an app designed to help keep teams and athletic departments connected, conducted the survey of more than 100 athletic directors from schools in Division I-A. “The State of Athletics in the Face of the Coronavirus” provides a sobering glimpse of the top concerns for the wealthiest athletic departments in the country.

Related: From 2019: It’s about to start storming financially at Florida State.

The NCAA canceled winter and spring sports March 12.

Athletic directors surveyed said their greatest concerns about their athletes over the next three months were academic progress, mental health and a lack of resources for them while off campus.

And then there are the financial concerns.

Canceling the men’s Division I basketball tournament cost the NCAA $375 million it was scheduled to distribute to its member schools.

Asked for their worst-case-scenario analysis, 65 percent of the athletic directors said revenue for the 2019-20 fiscal year would drop from zero to 20 percent, including 35 percent expecting a decrease ranging from zero to 10 percent.

Some schools are already taking steps to deal with shortfalls.

Trying to make up $5 million in lost revenue from basketball tournament cancellations, Iowa State has announced a one-year pay reduction for coaches and certain staff members to save more than $3 million. The school will also suspend bonuses for coaches for a year to save an additional $1 million.

“I’ve talked to many of my peers, and they want to do what we just did,” Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said.

Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman announced on Twitter he would reduce his salary by 10 percent through Dec. 31.

In the LEAD1 survey, 40 percent of the 95 athletic directors who responded said they either approved or strongly approved when asked if they believed high earners should voluntarily offer to make a personal financial sacrifice during the crisis; about 15 percent disapproved or strongly disapproved.

Football season is by far the biggest revenue driver for most I-A schools. Any disruption to it could be devastating to college sports because that revenue funds just about every other athletic program.

“We often hear from ADs and (multimedia rights) sellers that around 85 percent of revenue comes from football,” said Matt Balvanz, senior vice president for analytics for Navigate, a sports marketing consulting firm.

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He said the average Power Five school makes around $120 million in revenue per year, “which means roughly $100 million per year from football.”

“The thought (of) no football or losing an entire season … (is) a complete game changer. There are so many layers.” Pollard said.

For the average Power Five team, a home game is worth $14 million, including its value from a television rights deals, which is more than 10 percent of average total revenue, Balvanz said.

“Larger departments can likely absorb a 10 percent loss, but if that increases to 20 percent and 30 percent with more games lost, then that could be a major issue,” he said.

Playing games without fan in the stands? Balvanz said the average Power Five school gets some $30 million in ticket sales. If 85 percent of that is from football, that’s a loss of $25 million.

Athletic directors surveyed by LEAD1 were asked what revenue streams were they most concerned about. Donations and ticket sales received the most votes. Balvanz said a typical Power Five school brings in around $20 million to $30 million per year in donations, which could also take a hit in a struggling economy.

Schools in Group of Five conferences, which don’t rake in hundreds of millions yearly from their television deals, would be more vulnerable.

Fifty percent of Group of Five athletic directors in the LEAD1 survey said lost revenue from student fees was among their biggest concerns. Student fees and campus subsidies make up on average 30 percent to 50 percent of revenue from Group of Five schools, Balvanz said.

Kansas athletic director Jeff Long told reporters last month his staff was already starting to project how to operate with less.

“What would a 10 percent, what would a 20 percent cut in our operations look like?” Long said. “We’ve just started those as part of strategic planning for the future, haven’t made any decisions. Most of that is determined on how far and how long this crisis lasts.”