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The Uncertain Return of College Sports

With most university fiscal years beginning on July 1, schools are currently scrambling to figure out how the COVID-19 crisis will affect next year’s budgets. Perhaps no higher ed sector faces more uncertainty than athletics. With large gatherings seen as a prime vector of contagion, sports were among the first things to shut down and many experts believe they – or more precisely, sports with people in the stands – will be among the last to come back.

Right now, it is essentially impossible to predict what the situation will be in the fall. Will classes be in session? Will colleges remain limited to remote instruction? Can sports – especially football – take place if students aren’t on campus? Or without fans in the stands? If football can’t be played in the fall, will it move to the spring?

To deal with this uncertainty, reports indicate that schools aren’t just preparing one budget, some are in fact preparing three. The University of Minnesota, for example, has looked at various scenarios, ranging from a best-case scenario to a moderate-case scenario in which sports are played with empty stands, to a worst-case scenario in which everything is shut down. Revenue losses would range from $10 million in the best case, $30 million in the moderate case, and $75 million in the worst case.

It’s safe to say that every school is scrutinizing its athletic budget and looking for ways to save. Just a few examples:

Despite the uncertainties involved, preparing budgets with different scenarios will help athletics departments be more nimble in responding to changing circumstances. It will also enable departments to articulate their priorities and values in an environment that may be changing dramatically.

“Budgets reflect our values,” said Arne Duncan, a former U.S. education secretary told the Washington Post. “I think we’ll see now whether in a time of cutbacks, what gets prioritized. Is it the interest of adults and unbelievably high salaries? Or is it the interest of student-athletes and preserving their chance to compete and to put academics first?”

Colorado State University’s athletic director, Joe Parker, told The Coloradoan that his top priority will be protecting people in the form of scholarships and sports for athletes, and benefits for employees – a goal he says is consistent with the values expressed by the university’s president and governing board. Similarly, University of Colorado AD Rick George told a conference call last week that eliminating any of Colorado’s 17 sports is “way, way, way down the list of options.”

They are looking at various ways to save. For example, Colorado State said it was able to cover the $950,000 is lost in expected NCAA basketball tournament revenue by the savings from cancellation of the spring sports season, and Colorado similarly offset their NCAA shortfall.

Additional uncertainties involve how the crisis may affect everything from sponsorships to recruiting, how to handle scholarships for the additional year of eligibility the NCAA has given to student-athletes, and whether fans will feel safe enough to attend games, and whether a second wave of infection will require a reinstatement of lockdowns even after sports seasons get the green light to begin.

But it’s clear that athletic departments need to consider every possible scenario, and have not only a Plan B but also a Plan C. And even then, be ready to adapt.

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