COVID-19 initially appeared to present an existential threat to college athletic department bottom lines, with schools anticipating tens of millions—and in some cases over $100 million—in revenue shortfalls during the early months of the pandemic.
But the first look at new financial data from this past fiscal year—from July 2020 to June 2021—paints a less dire picture than expected.
Throughout the brunt of the pandemic, salary reductions were shouldered primarily by support staffers and administrators, not high-priced coaches. With travel restrictions in place, recruiting expenses dipped substantially. One area did produce significant cost overruns: medical and healthcare expenses, with most schools seeing their bills double as COVID testing, treatment and prevention took center stage.
At the vast majority of FBS institutions, football ticket sales dropped precipitously from the previous season, which went untouched by COVID. At Nebraska, for example, this revenue dropped 99%—from $31.4 million for 2019-20 to a mere $302,000 in 2020-21. Universities responded by slashing athletic department budgets, as game cancellations and cost-cutting measures like furloughs, layoffs and reductions in travel expenditures helped athletic departments cover some shortfalls.
These findings come from the most recent set of annual revenue and expense reports that schools are required to submit to the NCAA every January. The latest batch, for the 2021 fiscal year, is the first to capture a full academic year (and football season) disrupted by COVID.
Through public records requests, Sportico has already obtained those reports from dozens of public Football Bowl Subdivision schools, which together provide a detailed, national look at how the pandemic affected athletic departments across the NCAA’s top division. (Sportico’s Intercollegiate Finances Database is being continuously updated with this information as it is received.)
In total, the losses aren’t nearly as bad as the worst-case scenarios laid out by schools. On average, the 19 Power 5 schools that provided their reports showed one-year budget cuts of 12%, or $13.5 million. But the data does show conference divides. Big Ten schools, which had tighter fan restrictions and played a shorter 2020 football season, took a bigger hit in football media rights and ticket sales than those in the SEC.
Here are some other financial findings from roughly three dozen FBS schools that have provided their data:
While expenses fell across the board, medical and insurance costs soared, particularly at schools from major conferences. This is likely due to increased requirements around COVID-19 testing and prevention. Medical expenses doubled in aggregate across the Power 5 schools, with some departments, such as those at Nebraska, Minnesota and LSU, exceeding $5 million of spending in the category. In 2019-20, no public FBS program in the country spent more than $3.5 million.
At the start of the 2021 fiscal year many athletic departments announced furloughs, layoffs and reductions in coaching salaries. The numbers show that nationally, support staff and administrators bore the brunt of those pay cuts.
Coaching salaries dipped about 4% in football, with even smaller reductions across other sports. (Texas, as an example, announced pay reductions for coaches but later amended contracts promising to pay back those reductions.) Pay for other members of the athletic department dipped more significantly. Among the schools that provided data, compensation for administration and support staff was cut by an average of 8%, which amounted to just under $2 million for the median Power 5 program.
Recruiting expenses also fell significantly, decreasing by an average of about 65% in football and almost 85% in other sports. Those figures are particularly notable considering that FY20, the point of comparison, was already a bit of a down year in recruiting spending, compared to 2019, capturing the very earliest months of the pandemic.
The cuts were particularly apparent at Power 5 schools, where sky-high spending on football recruiting at many top programs has become the subject of much discussion in recent years. With travel limited and an NCAA ban on in-person recruiting in effect for much of the fiscal year, the average decrease in spending among college sports’ top tier rang in at seven figures.
The highest spenders made the biggest cuts. LSU, which shelled out $3.2 million for recruiting (half of which went to football) in 2018-19 and $2.8 million in 2019-20, spent just $610,013 this past fiscal year—an almost $2.2 million drop year-over-year. Minnesota slashed recruiting expenses by $1.6 million; Nebraska and Arkansas by more than $1.5 million each.
SEC vs. Big Ten
The two richest NCAA conferences took very different approaches to the 2020 football season. The SEC played a full slate of games, while the Big Ten postponed its season before squeezing in a shortened version. That led to drastically different financial results.
Big Ten schools not only missed out on more football ticket revenue, but they also received less from their conference media distributions. Illinois received $8 million less from football media rights as compared with 2019-20, while Minnesota and Purdue each had their payouts reduced by more than $4 million.
In the SEC, media rights revenue was virtually unchanged, while conference distributions actually jumped by roughly $20 million to $30 million, according to data from six schools. In addition to fulfilling more of its football media deals, the conference also announced in May that it would distribute an additional $23 million to each member as an advance on future television money. As a result, both Ole Miss and Arkansas both reported an increase in revenue for 2020.
Football tickets represent the single biggest revenue line item for many schools, and those sales were decimated in 2020. Nebraska’s sales fell more than $31 million. LSU experienced a similar drop, from $37.7 million to $5.7 million. These numbers held across the board: Every Power 5 program we analyzed lost more than 60% of its football ticketing revenue, and the average school lost out on 86% of its 2019-20 total by having fewer fans in seats.
Only a few schools reported an increase in athletics-related debt—Utah, an outlier, added $68 million for a new football renovation. But that figure could be misleading, given the various ways athletic departments helped balance their budgets. Colorado, for example, borrowed about $18 million from the Pac-12, which it will pay back through reduced payments for the next seven or eight years. That SEC advance can be viewed as a loan as well.
Rutgers, already saddled with debt, received a $21.5 million loan from the university. Illinois borrowed $32.5 million for facilities projects; Kentucky, which received no institutional support in 2020, received $6.5 million last year.