“While the decision to opt out of spring competition is the only responsible one for us at this time, it was not made lightly,” Chrite wrote in a letter to the school community. “We know that this decision greatly impacts our student athletes, our coaching staff, our Marching Wildcats and others, and I will be working with [Athletic Director] Lynn Thompson and his colleagues to minimize and ameliorate the impact of this decision.”
Volusia County in Florida has seen 482 cases of the coronavirus over the past week, according to The Washington Post’s nationwide tracker. Last week, Chrite announced the school would be going on “lockdown” to slow the spread of the virus, instituting an 11 p.m. curfew on campus.
Financial considerations almost certainly contributed to Bethune-Cookman’s decision not to play any sports during the 2020-21 academic year. Historically Black colleges and universities such as Bethune-Cookman fund their athletic departments in part through “guarantee games,” in which they accept road contests against power-conference schools for a large payday. Because of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s decision to move football to a conference-only schedule in the spring and uncertainty over the college basketball schedule, that revenue has dried up during the pandemic.
“In the MEAC, our institutions are counting every penny because of what we’re all confronted with,” Commissioner Dennis Thomas said in July after the Power Five conferences began to announce that their teams would be playing mostly conference opponents this season because of the pandemic. “That was another revenue stream for [Football Championship Subdivision programs] in terms of guarantees from [Football Bowl Subdivision] institutions.”
Bethune-Cookman’s football team, which operates at the second-tier FCS level, was scheduled to play at South Florida, reportedly for $425,000. That game was postponed because of the pandemic, and Thompson said earlier this year that the school stood to lose “a couple million” dollars after MEAC football was moved to a conference-only spring schedule.
“That’s being conservative,” Thompson said. “And those millions of dollars that we could lose, the institution certainly needs to have. Quite frankly, we have to find ways to make up for that.”
Bethune-Cookman’s athletic department brought in $15 million in revenue during the 2018-19 academic year, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. About $6 million came from its football and men’s basketball teams.
Morgan State of the MEAC reportedly was going to be paid $450,000 to play at Northwestern this season before that game was canceled, a payday that paled in comparison to the one earned by Bethune-Cookman in 2018, when Nebraska paid the school $800,000 to play on late notice after one of the Cornhuskers’ other games was canceled because of weather.
“We had at least one institution that was scheduled to play a Big Ten team, [and] that guarantee is taken off the table,” Thomas said. “When you start taking revenue streams off the table, that has a significant impact on athletic budgets.”
HBCU basketball teams also accept road games against Power Five opponents for sizable paydays. Last season, the Bethune-Cookman men’s basketball team played road games against Texas Tech and Georgia Tech. During the 2017-18 season, fellow MEAC program Coppin State traveled more than 12,000 miles to play its 15 nonconference games, all losses by an average margin of 22.9 points.
Small-conference men’s basketball programs earn about $75,000 on average for each of these guarantee games, ESPN reported this year, with some schools paying six figures. One MEAC coach told ESPN that the conference’s programs can earn anywhere from $200,000 to $600,000 from nonconference games each season and that two schools have raised as much as $750,000.
The MEAC announced its conference schedules for football and men’s and women’s basketball last week, with each football team playing a six-game schedule and basketball teams playing 16 conference games, with new geographical divisions created to cut down on travel amid the pandemic. It would have been Bethune-Cookman’s final season in the conference it joined in 1979: In July, the school announced it would be moving to the Southwestern Athletic Conference starting in the 2021-22 academic year.