May 19, 2020 - Sports

Coronavirus forces college sports programs to slash budgets

Illustration of a football made of pennies.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The coronavirus pandemic has shut down college sports, forcing athletic departments to search for any cost-cutting measures they can find.

Why it matters: While some of those are temporary, like furloughing employees, halting travel and asking head coaches to take pay cuts, others could be more permanent as schools take a closer look at their budgets and revisit why they were spending money on certain things in the first place.

The big picture: In addition to dealing with the challenges of the present, athletic directors and conference commissioners are also looking ahead and weighing how they can save money whenever sports do resume. Two prime examples:

  • Travel: One obvious way to reduce costs is to cut back on travel and develop a more regional approach to scheduling, especially for conferences like Conference-USA, which now spans three time zones thanks to football-driven realignment.
  • Tournaments: The Mid-American Conference is eliminating conference tournaments for eight sports, meaning conference champions in field hockey, men's and women's soccer, men's and women's tennis, women's lacrosse, softball and baseball will now be determined based on regular-season records.
"There's a lot of criticisms [about] what's happened to athletic budgets, and frankly some of it is fair. This gives us a chance to all take a good look at ourselves and say what do we really need here?"
— Vince Tyra, Louisville athletic director, via The Athletic

Yes, but: "There remains, however, a reluctance even to touch where the real fat sits: in the football budget," writes The Athletic's Dana O'Neil (subscription).

  • "There is no arguing or denying that Saturdays in the fall carry the freight for almost all football-playing athletic departments. ... But football also costs the most, and sometimes absurdly."

By the numbers:

  • Cincinnati cut men's soccer last month, which will save the school roughly $725,000. Last year, Cincinnati spent over $875,000 to pay its football support staff (i.e. analysts and other non-coaches).
  • Kansas spent over $2 million to feed its 130-member football team last year, compared to just $175,000 to feed its men's and women's track teams (combined 108 members).
  • Clemson paid its football support staff $6.2 million last year, "a figure that doesn't include the $8 million paid to 10 assistant coaches but does count the four staffers who make up the Clemson aviation department — a director, pilot, captain and captain/hangar manager," writes O'Neil.

Parting thought: Football is the only sport that generates a profit at most schools, which explains why the prevailing thought is to slash the budgets of non-revenue sports (or discontinue them) rather than impede the football operation.

  • But here's the thing: When you factor in tuition payments, many non-revenue sports are actually in the black.
  • This is because only six sports — football, men's and women's basketball, women's tennis, women's gymnastics and women's volleyball — are "headcount sports," meaning every athlete is guaranteed a full scholarship.
  • The rest are "equivalency sports," which means scholarships are limited and many athletes are paying full tuition like any normal student, making these sports far less of a financial burden than they might appear.

In related news: Furman University is discontinuing its baseball and men's lacrosse programs.

Go deeper: How college sports make money

Go deeper