COVID-19 initially appeared to pose an existential threat to the bottom line of college athletic departments, with schools anticipating tens of millions — and in some cases over $100 million—shortfall in the first months of the pandemic.
But the first look at new financial data for the past fiscal year – from July 2020 to June 2021 – paints a less gloomy picture than expected.
Throughout the pandemic, pay cuts have been borne primarily by support staff and administrators, not high-priced coaches. With travel restrictions in place, recruiting expenses have dropped significantly. One area has led to significant cost overruns: medical and healthcare spending, with most schools seeing their bills double as COVID testing, treatment and prevention took center stage.
Across the vast majority of FBS institutions, football ticket sales dropped precipitously from the previous season, which was unaffected by COVID. In Nebraska, for example, those revenues fell 99%, from $31.4 million for 2019-20 to just $302,000 in 2020-21. Universities have responded by cutting athletic department budgets as game cancellations and cost-cutting measures such as furloughs, layoffs and travel spending cuts have helped athletic departments cover some shortfalls.
These results come from the most recent set of annual income and expense reports that schools are required to submit to the NCAA each January. The latest batch, for fiscal year 2021, is the first to capture a full college year (and football season) disrupted by COVID.
Through public records requests, Sportico has already obtained these reports from dozens of public schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision, which together provide a detailed national overview of how the pandemic has affected NCAA Division One athletic departments. (Sporticoit is Intercollegiate Finance Database is continuously updated with this information as it is received.)
All in all, the losses are not as serious as the worst case scenarios provided by schools. On average, the 19 Power 5 schools that provided their reports showed year-over-year budget cuts of 12%, or $13.5 million. But the data shows the divisions of the conference. Big Ten schools, which had tighter fan restrictions and played a shorter 2020 football season, were hit harder by football media rights and ticket sales than those of the SEC.
Here are some other financial results from the roughly three dozen FBS schools that provided their data:
As spending fell across the board, medical and insurance costs soared, especially at major conference schools. This is likely due to increased testing and prevention requirements for COVID-19. Medical spending doubled across Power 5 schools, with some departments, such as those in Nebraska, Minnesota and LSU, exceeding $5 million in spending in the category. In 2019-2020, no public FBS program in the country spent more than $3.5 million.
At the start of the 2021 fiscal year, many athletic departments announced furloughs, layoffs, and salary cuts for coaches. Figures show that nationally, support staff and administrators have felt the brunt of these pay cuts.
Coaching salaries have fallen by around 4% in football, with even smaller reductions in other sports. (Texas, for example, announced pay cuts for coaches, but then changed contracts promising to to reimburse these cuts.) The salaries of other members of the athletic department fell more significantly. Among the schools that provided data, administrative and support staff compensation was reduced by an average of 8%, which equates to just under $2 million for the median Power 5 program.
Recruitment spending has also fallen significantly, falling on average by around 65% in football and almost 85% in other sports. These figures are particularly remarkable considering that fiscal year 2020, the point of comparison, was already a slightly down year in recruiting spend, compared to 2019, capturing the very first months of the pandemic.
The cuts were particularly apparent in Power 5 schools, where exorbitant expenses on football recruitment in many top programs has become the subject of much discussion in recent years. With limited travel and an NCAA in-person recruiting ban in effect for much of the fiscal year, the average drop in spending among top college sports hit seven figures.
The biggest spenders made the biggest cuts. LSU, which spent $3.2 million on recruiting (half of which went to football) in 2018-19 and $2.8 million in 2019-20, spent just $610,013 during the last fiscal year, down nearly $2.2 million year-over-year. Minnesota cut recruiting spending by $1.6 million; Nebraska and Arkansas over $1.5 million each.
SEC vs. Big Ten
The two wealthiest NCAA conferences took very different approaches to the 2020 football season. The SEC played a full slate of games, while the Big Ten postponed its season before pressing in a shortened version. This led to radically different financial results.
Big Ten schools not only missed out on more football ticket revenue, but they also received less from their conference media distributions. Illinois received $8 million less in football media rights than in 2019-20, while Minnesota and Purdue each saw their payouts cut by more than $4 million.
In the SEC, media rights revenue was virtually unchanged, while conference distributions actually jumped about $20 million to $30 million, according to data from six schools. Along with fulfilling more of its football media deals, the conference also announced in May that it would distribute an additional $23 million to each member as an advance of future television funds. As a result, Ole Miss and Arkansas both reported increased revenue for 2020.
Football tickets are the single largest revenue item for many schools, and those sales were decimated in 2020. Nebraska sales fell by more than $31 million. LSU saw a similar drop, from $37.7 million to $5.7 million. These numbers apply across the board: every Power 5 program we analyzed lost more than 60% of its football ticket revenue, and the middle school lost 86% of its 2019-20 total by having less seated fans.
Only a few schools reported an increase in athletics-related debt — Utah, an outlier, added $68 million for a new football renovation. But that number could be misleading, given the different ways athletic departments have helped balance their budgets. Colorado, for example, borrowed about $18 million of the Pac-12, which he will repay in reduced payments for the next seven or eight years. This advance from the SEC can also be considered a loan.
Already debt-ridden Rutgers received a $21.5 million loan of the University. Illinois borrowed $32.5 million for equipment projects; Kentucky, which received no institutional support in 2020, received $6.5 million last year.