Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle will present a plan to the Board of Regents on Friday for how his department plans to tackle revenue losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an outline released last week, the department revealed that it has lost $4 million and is targeting a “double-digit reduction in operating budget.”
What’s not known is whether that double digit is 10 percent or a figure considerably higher. If it’s 10 percent, that would equate to $12.3 million from the $123 million budget.
Some members of the department, including Coyle, his senior staff and coaches P.J. Fleck, Richard Pitino and Lindsay Whalen, have taken pay reductions of different degrees.
But to reach that $12.3 million mark (or more depending on what Coyle announces), the Gophers will need to dig deeper than pay cuts and furloughs.
The extent of those cuts hinges greatly on what happens with the football season. Not just here but across all of college sports.
If the football season is canceled, draconian measures will be necessary because football is the cash cow that drives college athletics. Hopefully that’s not the case. Different scenarios are being discussed by conference leaders including an on-time start to the season, a short delay, or possibly moving the season to winter.
Everything is so fluid that it’s hard to guess what will happen with any certainty because there are 130 FBS schools in 10 conferences plus independents and realistically, not all states will re-open at an identical pace.
But let’s focus on the Gophers and their budget as it stands. First, start with a basic premise that no school wants to eliminate sports as a response to this crisis. It’s already happened at Cincinnati and at Old Dominion, and I’m sure those won’t be isolated cases as schools wrestle with lost revenue and come to the conclusion that they have no other alternative. But that is the last resort option for most schools.
The Gophers have a $123 million budget, which ranks 8th in the Big Ten. Their 25-sport department ranks 4th in the conference in sponsored sports.
For context and to show how much the arm’s race in college sports has altered the picture, here’s some data from the ‘19 fiscal year compared to the 2012 athletic budget:
Total operating revenue:
2012: $83.6 million
Current: $130.4 million
2012: $83.6 million
Current: $129.4 million
First reaction is, Whoa. That’s a big spike in revenue and spending in just seven years. The revenue jump is easily explained – TV money. Conference networks and various media rights distribution have pumped billions of dollars into college athletics the past decade-plus, pushing the arm’s race to new heights in the primary areas of facilities, salaries and staffing.
In terms of expenses, the growth can be attributed to many factors. For example, the cost of scholarships for the Gophers has increased from $9.6 million in 2012 to $13.8 million at present. Attending college is considerably more expensive now.
The Gophers also count about $12 million in debt service for athletic facilities.
But a few budget categories also highlight just how much the landscape has changed college sports and where Coyle likely will look in cutting costs:
Coaching salaries, benefits and bonuses:
2012: $10.3 million
Current: $22.2 million
Support staff/administrative compensation, benefits, bonuses:
2012: $9.9 million
Current: $21.0 million
2012: $5.7 million
Current: $8.3 million
As a long-time college sports administrator told me recently: “It’s hard to go backward on salaries.” That is true, but as I’ve written what seems like countless times in the past two months, these are unprecedented times. Here is what Coyle told me in late March after the sports world had just shut down:
“There is no doubt in my mind that it’s going to look very different when we come out of this. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. But the financial impact on all of us is going to be felt and how we do things is going to look different.”
Pay reductions and hiring freezes already are in effect. Coyle’s regent outline also notes that three senior staff members who left the department have not been replaced. Travel budgets and scheduling likely will look different coming out of this crisis, too.
The travel budget has grown significantly over the years because traveling in general has become more expensive, the Big Ten’s footprint has grown with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, the move to Big Ten hockey and increased use of charter over commercial, among other factors.
I expect non-revenue teams to shift to more regional scheduling in non-conference to save money.
A few examples …
This season, the softball team – with travel expenses of $450,000 – made road trips to Florida (twice), Texas, Alabama, California and Hawaii. They opened their season in Florida on Feb. 7 and weren’t slated to host their first home game until March 27.
The department reported operating revenues of $177,000 for softball in the 2019 fiscal year.
This is not to highlight softball only. The women’s soccer team played road matches in California, Mississippi and Virginia. The men’s tennis team played in Florida, California, Massachusetts.
Coyle can’t fix the weather, but the Gophers have to find an alternative to that expense. Scheduling more regional opponents seems like a logical step. Or perhaps schedule fewer games.
The NCAA requires a minimum number of games each team must play to count as a sponsored sport. For instance, the minimum for baseball and softball is 27. Soccer is 11.
The Gophers softball team already had played 25 non-conference games before the season was shut down. They had 54 regular-season games scheduled, counting their Big Ten season.
Coaches will argue that a full, competitive schedule helps recruiting and in building a successful program. That’s no doubt true. But those ideas to save money would be a small concession if the alternative is to eliminate sports.
Every department must remain Title IX compliant while cutting costs. Every athletic director faces tough decisions in recovering from a crisis that doesn’t have an expiration date. We’ll get a glimpse of Coyle’s plan on Friday.