May 19, 2020 - Sports

Coronavirus forces college sports programs to slash budgets

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

NHL unveils 24-team playoff plan to return from coronavirus hiatus

Data: NHL; Table: Axios Visuals

The NHL unveiled its return-to-play plan on Tuesday, formally announcing that 24 of its 31 teams will return for a playoff tournament in two hub cities, if and when medically cleared.

Why it matters: Hockey is the first major North American sports league to sketch out its plans to return from a coronavirus-driven hiatus in such detail, and it's also the first one to officially pull the plug on its regular season, which will trigger ticket refunds.

Notre Dame president: Science alone "cannot provide the answer" to reopening

The Main Administration Building and Golden Dome on the campus of University of Notre Dame before a football game in 2018. Photo: Michael Hickey/Getty Images

University of Notre Dame President John Jenkins wrote in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday that science alone "cannot provide the answer" regarding the school's decision to bring students back to campus for its fall semester.

The state of play: Jenkins said that the decision also hinged on "moral value," arguing that "the mark of a healthy society is its willingness to bear burdens and take risks for the education and well-being of its young. Also worthy of risk is the research that can enable us to deal with the challenges we do and will face."

World coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

New Zealand has only eight active novel coronavirus cases and no COVID-19 patients in hospital after another day of zero new infections. However, the death toll rose to 22.

Zoom in: A top health official told a briefing a 96-year-old woman "was regarded to having recovered from COVID-19 at the time of her death, and COVID-19 is not recorded as the primary cause of her death on her death certificate." But it was decided to include her in the overall tally of deaths related to the virus.