Long before March 2020, the University of New Mexico’s athletic department was having a rough go of it financially. There were years of declining ticket sales, end-to-end coaching contract buyouts and chronic debt payments from stadium renovations.
Then came the novel coronavirus, prompting New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to bar fans from gathering at sporting events through the end of last year. The order effectively eliminated any chance at gameday income for UNM’s beleaguered revenue-generating sports for the 2020-21 season.
So, when the federal government began handing out billions in pandemic economic relief to universities, UNM decided to give its athletic department a sizable slice of the pie. By mid-May, of the $51.8 million New Mexico received via the CARES Act or the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), nearly a quarter ($12.5 million) went to athletics.
The Lobos received these moneys to make up for the shortfall in revenue and unforeseen expenses incurred on account of COVID-19.
As such, UNM’s athletic department has thus far distinguished itself as the biggest self-reported consumer of federal COVID relief grant money out of nearly 200 Division I public universities Sportico sought information from through public records requests. But the Lobos are certainly not alone in accepting these offsets: At least 59 other D-I programs acknowledged receiving a combined $55 million in relief funds during the 14 months after COVID-19 upended the 2020 spring season.
“Athletics was an afterthought, at most, and a non-thought most likely when Congress and the Department of Education were thinking about how to allocate money,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor of education at Tennessee who specializes in higher ed finance. “The goal was to just get money out quickly and help some colleges keep operating.”
The size of an institution’s allocations has been based on a student-enrollment formula that heavily weighs the number of Pell Grant recipients; COVID-related losses or expenses for athletic departments, however sizable, do not factor into the federal grants.
A caveat: Schools have continued to distribute COVID relief funds since Sportico made its records requests in May. The findings here are an early summer snapshot of a cross-section of D-I schools; they are not a comprehensive accounting of which athletic programs received what and likely understate what college sports has consumed of these moneys.
While HEERF money cannot be used for capital expenditures associated with athletic facilities, schools are otherwise granted substantial latitude to apportion their stimulus shares to athletics. It then makes for a zero-sum game between the needs of the main campus and those of an athletics department.
“Athletics and other divisions related to student life are important but should be secondary to supporting and promoting the core academic mission and the faculty who teach the classes and conduct the research,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors.
While noting that the “optics aren’t great in many cases,” Kelchen says that “at the end of the day, money is fungible, and so many Division I universities already subsidize athletics in some way.”
The Department of Education has not required universities to include departmental and auxiliary breakdowns in their annual reporting forms, although the agency is currently in the public comment phase of revising that process. “It’s hard to say what we will and won’t collect until the full comment process is complete,” a DOE spokesperson said in a statement.
For now, it is left up to universities to decide if and how they want to crunch those numbers, limiting any institution-to-institution comparisons that might be drawn. With that in mind, New Mexico spokesperson Cinnamon Blair says other schools are simply concealing their athletic department COVID relief allocations behind accounting terminology.
“We understand that some institutions opted to claim ‘overhead’ for a significant portion of the funds, turning those funds into discretionary unrestricted resources,” Blair said, without citing any specific examples. “Given that our known needs were far greater than the amount received, and because we value transparency, we did not opt to do that at UNM.”
Even if that’s the case—and with the caveat that scores of schools have still not yet responded to Sportico’s records requests, three months later—the data provides a window into not only the myriad ways the pandemic exacted its toll but how different schools prioritized the emergent needs of their sports programs. For those athletic departments that were allocated COVID relief funds, most claimed the money went to pay for testing, PPE and supplies.
Eastern Washington, which reported allocating $628,991 of COVID funds to cover athletics testing and supplies, earlier this year spent $38,000 on an outside consultant to perform a six-month review of its athletic department. The analysis was done in response to an ultimately unsuccessful faculty-led movement to drop out of D-I for budget reasons. An EWU spokesperson said the COVID fund reimbursement was "part of the university’s broader response to the pandemic and our commitment to keeping our entire community safe."
But it wasn’t just the have-nots taking government handouts: Some of the country’s richest athletic departments partook of stimulus moneys, too.
LSU athletics, which frequently hails its financial independence, disclosed receiving more than $4 million of the school’s COVID funds, almost all of which went to COVID tests for athletes.
“We continue to work tirelessly and plan diligently to address last year’s $80 million revenue shortfall,” said Tigers spokesperson Cody Worsham, “and we remain proud to be one of few self-sustaining collegiate athletics departments to receive zero funding from state appropriations or student fees.”
Fellow SEC members Auburn ($809,659), Tennessee ($1.4 million) and Mississippi ($1.6 million) likewise disclosed CARES Act or HEERF disbursements to cover the costs of testing and to socially distance their sports participants.
Like New Mexico, a handful of schools not only used relief funds to cover their variants of new expenditures, but to make up for revenue losses.
Texas Tech, for example, was among a handful of athletic departments that used pandemic stimulus money to cover the losses from another form of subsidy: student fees. In the case of the Red Raiders, that rang to the tune of $2 million through May.
“Texas Tech University credited some student fees, where the services for which the fee is charged were not provided in full or able to be used in a normal operating fashion for a portion of time during the pandemic,” said school spokesperson Matthew Dewey. “This constituted lost revenue to the institution for which federal relief funds were made available.”
Georgia State sent $3.5 million of COVID funds to athletics for student fees it failed to collect during the canceled 2020 spring semester. In a statement, Georgia State senior vice president Jerry Rackliffe explained that the school had refunded athletic fees to students late in the fiscal year after most of the costs had been expensed to athletics.
“The reimbursement was necessary to ensure that Athletics was not put into a deficit financial position due to (those) unanticipated refunds,” Rackliffe said.
Across the Peach State, Georgia Southern disclosed allocating $2.76 million to cover lost student fees that would have gone to athletics, as part of the total $6.8 million in relief funds that went to the department.
UTEP spent $2.3 million on lost revenue reimbursements, which it broke down into nine, miss-out subcategories: $836,948 for its 2020 NCAA distribution; $10,000 for basketball preferred seats; $190,000 for football ticket donations; $100,000 for fundraising; $195,000 for revenue from its Pepsi deal; $261,540 for football season tickets; $144,393 for men’s basketball ticket donations; $300,000 for a basketball “buy” game; and $284,501 for its 2021 NCAA distribution.
In a few instances—such as with Washington ($595,626) and Virginia Commonwealth ($246,185.45)—Sportico found schools using COVID relief funds to cover the costs of “super senior” athletic scholarships, following the NCAA’s decision to grant an additional extra year of eligibility to athletes whose final playing seasons had been canceled by the pandemic.