“It’s an ice age,” Pollard said in a phone interview. “I don’t know how any of us, how the current NCAA model, could survive if we’re not playing any football games.”
Just four weeks after the pandemic forced the cancellation of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and other sports, athletic directors, conference commissioners and network executives are turning their attention to the upcoming football season. In interviews this week, several athletic directors and college sports officials acknowledged a distressing reality: A canceled football season would cost the industry billions, forcing athletic directors to consider layoffs, drastic pay cuts and potentially canceling so-called Olympic or nonrevenue sports.
“Everything is on the table,” Pollard said. “It’s hard today to wrap your head around how challenging that would be if we can’t play any football games. . . . We’d essentially be bankrupt.”
Iowa State’s annual athletics budget hovers around $90 million, and about 75 percent of its revenue comes from football, Pollard said. To deal with a $5 million drop in this school year’s revenue created by the coronavirus-related cancellations, Pollard already has instituted an across-the-board 10 percent pay cut for all coaches and athletic department employees. But he said that wouldn’t come close to helping deal with plummeting revenue in the 2020-21 school year if no football is played, which is why hybrid season models are under discussion.
“There’s a lot of really smart people out there who will do everything humanly possible to try to find a way to play some or all of the football games,” Pollard said.
For the past few weeks, Tom McMillen, chief executive of Lead1 — a nonprofit that represents the 130 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision — has had regular virtual happy hours with small groups of athletic directors, sipping wine and discussing how the coronavirus might affect the football season. They weighed the pros and cons of options that included delaying the season into spring 2021 and relocating games to regions of the country where the pandemic has been contained, as well as the potential impact if the season is lost entirely.
“The optimistic view here is that we will get this under control and this is not like the Great Depression that went on and on,” McMillen said. “But there’s going to be some type of change or impact, no question about it.”
Even if the season kicks off as scheduled Aug. 29, McMillen said, many athletic directors expect some type of effect on their bottom line because of fears of a resurgence. Some experts have said it is possible new coronavirus infections could taper off in the summer before returning in the fall and winter, similar to the timeline of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. In Italy, a Feb. 19 professional soccer game in Milan was identified as a potential “super spreader” event, helping ignite the coronavirus crisis in that country.
“It’s probably going to take a while for people to feel comfortable sitting close to each other in a stadium or arena again,” McMillen said.
Ticket sales are just one of several revenue streams that could be impacted by coronavirus concerns, McMillen and others noted. A struggling economy probably would affect donations. Several schools delayed deadlines for donations required to secure football season tickets.
“It’s borderline immoral to be soliciting money from people, given what some folks in our country are going through,” said Tulane Athletic Director Troy Dannen, whose department normally is ramping up its fundraising operations in April, May and June as people renew season tickets.
Many athletic departments, particularly those outside the wealthier Power Five conferences supported by lucrative television contracts, depend on mandatory student fees that probably would be waived if students aren’t on campus. At the University of Central Florida, a roughly $172 fee assessed to every full-time undergraduate student on campus provides more than $23 million of the athletic department’s $68 million in annual revenue.
“The financial model of major college athletics is built around the revenue we generate in those three months,” said UCF Athletic Director Danny White, referring to the football season. “There is no financial solution to solve that if [the football season] doesn’t happen.”
A handful of the wealthiest programs have substantial reserve funds saved that could help mitigate the financial pain. Georgia’s athletic department has more than $100 million in a reserve fund, a school spokesman said in an email.
But across the landscape of major college sports — where athletic departments routinely spend every dollar they earn, plowing income gains back into rising salaries for coaches or new facilities to impress donors and recruits — few schools have rainy day funds at all, let alone reserves as large as Georgia's.
“They typically don’t do a great job creating a huge buffer of savings they can grab in times like these. . . . They do typically make more money each year, but then they go right out and spend it,” said Daniel Rascher, an economics professor at the University of San Francisco and president of consulting firm SportsEconomics.
Some conferences also have reserve funds, but the sums are not enough to mitigate the losses that would be felt at each school in the event of a lost season. The SEC, for example, reported $25.4 million in savings and another $59.3 million in investments in its most recent financial filing to the IRS. At Alabama, just one of the 14 SEC schools, football generated $95.2 million of the athletic department’s $164.1 million of revenue in 2019, school records show.
Spokespeople for the SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 all declined to comment or did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
“A situation with more questions than answers right now,” wrote Herb Vincent, associate commissioner for communications at the SEC, in an email declining an interview request.
While the football season is not scheduled to begin for more than four months, social distancing mandates would need to be relaxed well in advance for the season to begin on time. Most teams begin preseason camp around Aug. 1, and schools probably would need to know at least a few weeks in advance, potentially as early as by July 1, whether they have the all-clear to have their football players and coaches begin making arrangements to be on campus.
Iowa State’s Pollard emphasized the tremendous uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic at this point, expressing hope the season would begin as scheduled while acknowledging the possibility predicted by some experts that pro and college sports won’t return until 2021. He also noted that, in the grand scheme of things, if college football can’t be played this fall and winter, it probably means there are far more significant problems confronting the nation.
“If we’re not playing college football … that probably means the economy in the United States is a lot worse off than it is today,” Pollard said. “So the pain we would feel in college athletics may be minuscule compared to what our country would be feeling.”