COVID-19 Can Kill College Athletics

COVID-19 has torn apart so much of the economy and so many industries. The victim list continues to rise through small businesses, gyms, retailers and hospitality among many others. College football, basketball and athletic programs could be amongst the biggest victims. 

If college football does not make it through this season, athletic departments will crumble. The college sports model is already broken and COVID-19 will make it more apparent than ever.

College football is the king of college athletics. Its popularity and economic success has altered all college conferences throughout the country. If you were left out of the Power 5 shift, your school may already be having trouble to even stay afloat. So how can, and will, COVID-19 change athletic budgets?
Number and commerce nerds get ready!

First, let’s look at a high-level example of football impact. The LSU athletic department gets nearly $100 million of its total $157 million revenue from football. Of course, you might say it makes sense that a southern SEC major competitive football team drives revenue. What about a terrible football program in Kansas? The school has one of the best basketball teams every year. It’s almost always in the top five and competing for a championship. Kansas’s terrible football team still brought in $34 million versus only $18 million in basketball. Now let’s look at a few major things that could cause the biggest impacts:

No Fans Allowed

At major universities, athletic budgets can vary from $80 million to $150 million dollars. In many cases 30% of that budget is supplemented by college football and basketball ticket sales.

So, let us assume college football plays and no fans drive TV contracts and viewership to an expected all-time high. Power conferences like the Big Ten split anywhere from $30 million to $54 million in TV contracts.

While it’s still too early to project costs per school, you’re losing a ton of money.

They better not increase beer and food prices next year!

Extended Athletic Eligibility

If the NCAA allows athletes an extra year of eligibility, the fiscal impact could be huge. Schools that already did so for spring sports have said they’re going to give out less in scholarships. Mind you, that’s only for spring sports. The impact would be much bigger on the large and scholarship-heavy major fall sports.

NCAA Contributions

In an average year, the NCAA contributes around 60 percent of its revenue to Division I schools. But this year, the NCAA is already seeing a 42 percent decrease in revenue. Most of this came from the loss of March Madness. But if college football were to be hit the same way,  there’d virtually be no more revenue-driving sports left.

No Out of Conference Games

Second-tier programs can lose more than $1 million since they no longer can go lose to to a top-tier team. For some schools that is 6 percent of their entire athletic budget just to get embarrassed in front of home “crowds” on a football Saturday.

Out of the top-20 highest revenue generating athletic departments, all but Kentucky are heavy football schools. But even Kentucky benefits heavily from SEC football contracts.

So what will happen?

Power 5 schools will most likely survive and will not have to cut many sports to do so. But when you leave the P5, things get grim quickly. The richest non-P5 school is UCONN. It has already cancelled its football season and is already reporting an expected deficit of $40 million from last year. 

Men’s soccer teams continue to disappear throughout the country. Cuts have been to tennis programs, swimming, gymnastics, wrestling and more. 

We must expect cuts, with or without college football. Maybe this will change college programs in a good way and encourage fiscal responsibility. However, I worry that many sports outside of the gravy trains of football and men’s basketball could see their scholarship programs racing to a demise.

BANNER: LSU takes on Alabama at Tiger Stadium. LSU’s athletic department makes nearly $100 million. PHOTO CREDIT: Getawaypaul27//Wikimedia Commons

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