Like his peers across college sports, New Mexico State University Athletic Director Mario Moccia is anticipating an upcoming budget crisis. So on Friday he made the three-hour drive from Las Cruces up to Albuquerque to play a round of socially distanced golf with an Aggies donor. Before getting in his car, Moccia took a call from another benefactor.
“She said, ‘We may not have sports, but I know you guys need the money now more than ever,'” said Moccia, who oversees one of the smallest athletics budgets in top-tier college football. “Your face-to-face interactions, to the extent that they’re allowed, are going to be critical. And that’s part of the reason I’m making this drive. You have to keep your people engaged, especially the people that can maybe help mitigate some of this financial crisis.”
There’s going to be a lot more of this in the coming months from college sports. On Tuesday, New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham sent a letter to the state’s two FBS schools urging them to suspend all contact sports this fall. With the fall football season hanging by a thread, athletic directors are starting to confront their worst fear, a season without their cash cow.
One tactic being used by many involves asking fans to turn ticket payments into one-time tax-deductible donations. When the Western Athletic Conference postseason basketball tournament in Las Vegas was canceled at the start of the pandemic, Moccia’s department gave Aggies fans three choices: a refund, a credit towards next season, or the option to turn those payments into a one-time donation. The school had $44,760 worth of refundable ticket sales and was able to convert $10,440 of that, about 23 percent, into one-time donations. It held onto another $7,680 in credit towards next year.
That’s something Moccia says he might do in the future for football tickets, and he’s not alone. Michigan, for example, offered the same three options in an email last week to season ticket holders. Should the season be disrupted, Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma say they’ll also present the option of turning ticket payments into donations. Communication to Sooners fans cites a gift for the athletic department’s “emergent needs.”
On the one hand, this is a tough time to reach out for money. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and expendable income has dried up for many. On the other, those pains haven’t been nearly as acute for the wealthiest Americans. The stock market has rebounded to near-record highs, and the pitch from athletics departments has never been so compelling.
“Nothing rallies donors quite like the thought that you might be dropping sports,” said Steve Pederson, former AD at Pitt and Nebraska and current sports management advisor at Barnes & Thornburg. “People like to think that they’re helping their institutions, preserving opportunities for student athletes. I think donors will stick around.”
Top-level athletic departments generate money in three main ways—media payments, donations and ticket sales. Across college football’s top division in 2018, those buckets were 34%, 24%, and 21%, respectively. Football ticket sales will be minimal, if they come at all, and there’s massive uncertainty about those media payments if no games are played, which leaves donations as the one major area that might be able to mitigate some of the expected losses. Many of those donations are directly linked to season ticket sales, and many of those payments are made months or even years in advance. Holding as much of that money as possible may be critical for managing budgets in 2020.
Not everyone, however, is taking the same approach. Clemson is offering refunds to those who want them, and while they are considering other options, the school is still waiting to see how the season turns out. In the Big Ten, the University of Maryland paused all fundraising during the pandemic and may take a different approach once it resumes, according to athletic director Damon Evans.
“We are focused on the long view here,” Evans said. “I think it would be a mistake to try to focus on retaining money or soliciting new gifts in the short term. Of course, we will do some of that, but our focus is going to be on the long-term financial health of our athletic department. There are no quick financial fixes in the wake of COVID.”
Regardless of approach, the focus for all remains the importance of relationships. Evans said the Terrapins are getting daily emails, notes and voice messages checking in on the program.
“As I always say, with all due respect to vacuum cleaner and encyclopedia salesmen, this is an easier sell—student athletes and their educational opportunities, helping out with their nutrition,” said Moccia, whose donations are up about $20,000 over this time last year. “So I feel like when it comes to selling, we certainly have a compelling case.”
(This story has been updated in the third paragraph with news of a letter from the New Mexico governor urging the suspension of all contact sports in the fall.)