The grip that the coronavirus pandemic has on sports doesn’t just include current activities that are on indefinite hiatus, it’s also making an impact in programs seeking upward mobility.
That is the case in Big Ten hockey, with the University of Illinois’ plans to announce the addition of men’s varsity hockey as early as May now on hold, athletic director Josh Whitman told the Champaign News-Gazette on Monday.
“Candidly, we were bracing and preparing for a big announcement as early as next month,” Whitman told the News-Gazette. “We felt like we had put everything in the order that we needed. We had all the partners around the table. We had a good, solid plan to move it forward. Then, of course, everything changed.”
On March 12, the NCAA announced all remaining winter sports and all spring sports were canceled. The start of the fall season for the 2020-21 school year remains uncertain.
Whitman emphasized that he is optimistic that the hold is temporary and that momentum remains for Fighting Illini hockey to move from a top-level club team playing in a 2,000-seat facility to becoming an NCAA Division I program and eighth member of the Big Ten hockey conference that would play in a to-be-built, 5,000-seat multipurpose arena in downtown Champaign. The estimated price for the arena portion of the project is $50 million.
“We’re still in very active conversations with all the different partners who have come around the table to help move that forward,’’ Whitman said. “I’m hopeful that’s a short-term pause and not a long-term no.”
The financial fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak is hitting college athletics hard. The University of Minnesota’s athletic department, for example, estimates losses of $10 million in revenue with sports being canceled through the spring semester. If games are canceled through the fall season, Gophers athletics could lose up to $75 million in revenue.
Such a financial climate suggests that schools won’t be adding sports anytime soon. Quite the opposite, with the University of Cincinnati dropping its men’s soccer program on April 14 in a move that many observers believe is a sign of more shuttered sports programs to come amid revenue shortfalls.
Whitman’s key task is keeping investors in the arena project on board amid the uncertainties. He’s received positive feedback along with caution.
“By and large, most people and most organizations remain very comfortable with this new situation,’’ he told the News-Gazette. “There are a couple other entities that are also kind of seeing how this is going to play out in terms of their own financial picture. It made it evident it was wisest for all of us to take a short pause here and make sure each of the different entities remains committed and capable of the support necessary to get it done.”