Big Red Business: Coronavirus’ financial fallout: How will Nebraska fare?
Nebraska’s Bill Moos and every other college athletic director in the country is grappling with the same question: How much financial pain has the coronavirus pandemic inflicted on the athletics program?
Will rainy day reserve funds need to be tapped? What about short-term loans? How much NCAA revenue sharing will trickle down from March Madness, the College World Series and other spring championship events that have been canceled? Will ticket sales and donations take a hit? Are there new and different ways to generate revenue?
The financial ramifications don’t stop there, though it is hard to comprehend their depth and scope at this point.
“It seems safe to say that everyone is going to be adjusting their budgets for both this year -- and next year,” said Kristi Dosh, a business of sports expert and author of “Saturday Millionaires: How Winning Football Builds Winning Colleges.”
Although there stand to be losses, Dosh said, those losses “are offset by a reduction in expenses as athletic departments are no longer paying for things like food and travel for student athletes that would have been otherwise competing this spring. But no one I’ve spoken to yet has a clear idea of what the losses might be, even with the offsets.”
Certainly Nebraska and the other major conference schools will feel a financial crunch from the coronavirus shutdown, and much more severely if the pandemic stretches into football season. But if any athletic department is built for weathering the financial fallout from a potential decline in revenue, it’s Nebraska.
That’s largely because of robust football season ticket sales, a loyal donor base, a clean, well-managed and revenue-positive balance sheet, and reserve funds reportedly in excess of $150 million parked at the Nebraska Foundation. This also assumes the continuation of a hefty check from Big Ten revenue sharing payouts of $50 million plus.
For now, Nebraska’s athletic department said it would be premature to comment on the possible financial implications because so much is unknown or changing overnight. Instead the “athletic department’s focus is on the care and welfare of our student-athletes at this point,” said Keith Mann, a spokesman for the department. More than 650 student-athletes participate in 24 men’s and women’s sports.
That said, Moos addressed the potential economic fallout to Nebraska athletics in an interview Friday with the Lincoln Journal Star. While Moos didn’t disclose numbers, he said he has challenged his senior staff to think creatively on possible solutions to any revenue shortfalls.
One of those ideas was allowing alcohol sales at Memorial Stadium and other athletic venues.
“There’s an opportunity here to implement things you ordinarily wouldn’t implement, or would have trouble implementing, that could make us better,” he told the Journal Star.
Beyond all the what ifs, here’s what’s known about the financial implications facing Nebraska, along with some educated guesses.
How about a $500,000 hit to the athletic department’s coffers.
That’s a reasonable estimate for the cost of refunding money to fans who had purchased tickets for the April 18th spring football event. While not a huge blow in the big picture of the athletic department’s $137 million budget, a half-million dollars can buy a lot of ribeye steaks for the training table, ankle tape and cold packs for trainers, and equipment for athletes.
Mann said about 62,000 tickets had been distributed for the spring practice finale before it was canceled. Not all those tickets were sold, as some are given to youths, staff, and university students.
After the giveaways, for example, if 50,000 spring game tickets were actually purchased at the standard price of $10 per ticket ($20 for club seats), that would result in $500,000 in refunds. However, some of that revenue loss would be offset by a reduction in game-day expenses.
Chad Carr, president of Omaha-based Ticket Express, applauded the athletic department for taking quick action in announcing its refund policy. “They didn’t leave anything in question,” he said.
Nebraska also canceled its April 25th women’s volleyball match against Northern Colorado. The match, in Grand Island, was sold out. Tickets are also being refunded for this event.
Football season ticket renewals were due in early March, and donations tied to tickets are due April 1.
Mann said renewals were running at “normal” levels with past years, meaning that most seats at Memorial Stadium have been spoken for. Of course, that doesn’t include seats allotted yet for students and for visiting teams’ fans.
Ticket sales for football generated about $30.2 million in revenue in fiscal 2019, according to Nebraska’s latest financial statement filed with the NCAA. The period covers July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.
Mann didn’t address donations. But Carr said that based on his 27 years’ experience as a ticket broker, he largely expects business as usual “with the majority of people to be able to pay their donation amount.”
“It’s a huge deal compared to other schools to have that money (from ticket revenue and seat donations) in the bank,” he said.
Who needs tickets?
It’s unclear for now how much the coronavirus will impact ticket sales in the secondary market through brokers such as Carr.
Before the coronavirus pandemic delivered its first punches in the United States, Carr said he was expecting demand for Nebraska football tickets to be slower than normal for the 2020 season.
“I didn’t feel necessarily that interest in year three of the Scott Frost era would equate to the same fan interest in seasons’ one and two,” he said, citing three consecutive losing seasons, and a home schedule with fewer headliners.
Ticket Express started its ticket marketing campaign in December, as soon as Nebraska’s season was over. Up until the past two weeks, Carr said, the company was “having normal sales for Nebraska football, certainly with lots of interest in club level seats in east and west stadiums.”
But Ticket Express has “basically paused all of (its) active marketing,” until conditions improve, Carr said.
Nebraska and all Division I schools should learn Monday whether the NCAA grants eligibility relief for athletes whose seasons were impacted by COVID-19. The NCAA’s Division I Council, a panel of administrators who oversee rules affecting college athletics’ day-to-day operations, is scheduled to vote on Monday on the proposal.
Earlier this month, the council said “eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I athletes who participated in spring sports.”
Here’s how Nebraska could be impacted: Of the 36 players on Nebraska’s 2020 baseball roster, seven are seniors. Women’s softball has 19 players, including four seniors, while the women’s basketball team, which was scheduled for postseason play in the Women’s NIT, has 13 players, including four seniors.
It was unclear how many of those athletes are on athletic scholarships. But the athletic department distributed about $12.7 million in athlete student aid in its last fiscal year, according to its latest financial statement. That does not include Pell grants, which are distributed by the federal government.
USA Today reviewed scholarship costs of NCAA-sanctioned spring sports during the 2018-2019 fiscal year at 20 Division I athletics departments. The study looked at rosters by class year, the number of spring sports scholarships awarded by each university, and a schools’ cost of attendance figures to arrive at an estimate of the total investment required to give athletes the option of regaining lost eligibility.
For example, it noted that Auburn would need about $480,000 to cover only one year of eligibility for this year’s senior class who competed for eight spring teams. It awarded about 60 scholarships in 2018-2019.
The USA Today study noted there would be additional costs with athletes staying an extra season, such as for food and equipment.
How many athletes would choose to remain in school and play another season? Will winter sports, such as wrestling, be supported? How will scholarships be handled and will Title IX gender equity requirements be relaxed for special circumstances? Those are big unknowns.
March Madness haircut
Nebraska does not rely as heavily as some schools -- particularly the mid-majors -- on NCAA revenue distributions from March Madness.
According to its fiscal 2019 financial report, Nebraska received $5.2 million from all NCAA distributions a year ago, including $2.335 million for basketball. In the big picture, March Madness revenue is about 2 percent of the athletic department’s total budget.
On Thursday, the NCAA announced it will distribute $225 million in June to conferences, -- $375 million less than the $600 million it had originally budgeted for distribution in April.
Of the $225 million distribution, $50 million will come from NCAA reserves, the organization said.
The NCAA also has $270 million in business interruption insurance tied to the tournament. That money would be used to pay off a line of credit that would cover the remaining distribution.
“But that could take a great deal of time (to payout), and could get caught up in disputes over whether a pandemic is covered,” said Dosh.
Dosh said the NCAA should be able to borrow money against future television rights earnings it is contracted to receive from CBS and Turner, which pays the organization about $800 million annually.
The NCAA stressed to members the importance of “planning carefully with less revenue.”
Interestingly, the NCAA had been preparing for catastrophic events such as this going back to about 2004. The organization had parked about $400 million through 2014 in a reserve fund against the possibility of massive losses of revenue from the basketball tournament, according to media reports.
But according to those reports, the NCAA tapped into the fund and distributed the money to schools to cover increased expenses, including settling a lawsuit stemming from cost-of-attendance rules.
Do conferences or athletic departments carry their own business interruption policies to cover potential financial disasters?
Dosh said she wasn’t aware of any athletic departments that do so. The same with Bob Vecchione, chief executive officer of the National Association of Collegiate Director of Athletics. He said athletic departments’ ability to carry catastrophic insurance coverage often depends on state rules and regulations.
“The topic has not been discussed from a macro perspective,” he said, “but probably will in the future.”
Steve Rosen writes about the business of sports for HuskerOnline. Questions, comments, story ideas? Reach Steve at email@example.com.