There was a slight uneasiness detected in Debbie Corum’s voice.
This was on Friday, the day after the NCAA announced that its Board of Governors voted unanimously to reduce its financial distribution to its Division I schools in the wake of the NCAA Tournament’s cancellation due to the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic. The college sports governing body will distribute $225 million in June to Division I schools, well short of the budgeted $600 million that was slated to go out in April.
Corum, the athletic director at Southern Utah University, has a great many things to deal with these days, all of them compounded by the NCAA revenue distribution announcement. After Corum finished a phone interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday, she had another phone call to make, and she wasn’t looking forward to it.
“I’m having a call right after this with our budget person,” Corum told The Tribune. “We’re really going to go through everything and decide what is essential for doing our business. We are literally going to go staff by staff and see if we can reduce numbers on our coaching staffs. We are pretty bare bones on our administrative and support staff. The only place we have a lot of leeway is coaching staffs.”
In a text to The Tribune later Friday, Corum said that while layoffs were a consideration, her chief financial officer had convinced her on that next phone call that he had a plan so that no SUU coaches or administrative staff members would have to be laid off. In these uncertain times, that qualifies as great news, but Corum has a lot more work ahead of her.
Southern Utah is a member of the Big Sky Conference. It is Division I, but low on the totem pole. A one-bid league in men’s basketball, the Big Sky is one of the top FCS leagues in the country, but that doesn’t pay the bills. The annual revenue distribution from the NCAA certainly helps, and the amount of money the Big Sky is able to disperse to its members is not nearly what it usually is.
According to Corum, the Big Sky will have $4.5 million to give out to its members, down from the $10.7 million the conference was able to give out in 2019. Corum estimates Southern Utah’s cut will be between $525,000 and $550,000.
“It was gut-wrenching,” Corum said. “We were excited, too, because we were going to finish in the black this year. Not a lot of schools do that. We were really, really excited and we tried hard to do that this year. This whole thing really took away our opportunity.
“We had put together an aggressive five-year budget deficit plan and it paid off. That had been a really big priority, and coaches had been cooperative on doing things on a shoestring budget. We were going to be successful.”
“The reaction was, this is going to be a challenge,” another Big Sky athletic director, Weber State’s Tim Crompton, told The Tribune. “We certainly knew something was coming based on the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. We have some things to figure out, so we have to keep gathering information and move forward.”
Even with normal NCAA revenue distribution, Big Sky members struggle to finish in the black in any given fiscal year. According to the most recent college financial database from USA TODAY, of the league’s 11 full members, only four, Montana State, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado and Portland State, had their total revenue outpace their total expenses for the 2017-18 school year.
Now consider the fact that, if the COVID-19 pandemic does not reasonably subside, the possibility of an altered or even canceled football season exists. Big Sky teams Eastern Washington (at Florida, Sept. 5) and Portland State (at Arizona, Sept. 5) could lose out on lucrative “guarantee-game” checks.
On Sept. 12, the University of Utah will host Montana State. The Utes will pay the Bobcats $675,000 for the trip to Salt Lake City, according to a GRAMA request submitted by The Tribune.
Neither Southern Utah nor Weber State has a high-profile Power Five nonconference game this season, although both will play at Utah in the coming years, the Wildcats in 2021 (for $625,000) and the Thunderbirds in 2022 (for $600,000).
“That’s one thing none of us really want to talk about, if football is affected,” Corum said. “You take into account guarantee games, ticket revenue, sponsorships, donors, donations, all of that is really tied to football. If you’re not able to have football, you’re cutting into whether or not we can have sports that we sponsor. We’re hoping that doesn’t happen. One of the things we’re really concerned about is having everybody back on campus.”
“Logically, we’re going to start putting the pieces together, but I really just don’t know yet,” Crompton added. “This isn’t necessarily related to just football, but how we move forward in general. We have to look at each individual sport to have a collective thought. We’re just planning as a department and how to determine how sports are impacted. I wish we could look into the future, but we can’t.”
What about Division II?
As far as NCAA revenue distribution goes, Division I got the headlines, but its Division II and non-scholarship Division III brethren didn’t fare much better.
Division II as a whole annually receives 4.37% of NCAA revenue. With that, the current projection for Division II is $13.9 million, which would represent a $30 million decrease from last year. Division III gets 3.18% of revenue, which equates to $10.7 million, a $22 million decrease.
A small liberal arts school located in the Sugar House area of Salt Lake City, Westminster College sponsors 15 Division II teams as a member of the Rocky Mountain Athletics Conference. The RMAC sponsors football, but Westminster does not.
“The overall membership, all three divisions are going to take a hit,” Griffins athletic director Shay Wyatt told The Tribune. “There was a sense among conference members that this was the likely outcome. Obviously, with the NCAA Tournament cancellation, it was almost a given. This is such a major component for everyone’s annual revenue.”
Another 17% goes towards an enhancement fund, which disperses money to both member conferences and individual institutions. Yet another 17% is put towards strategic initiatives, which include supporting academic achievement and professional development.
When all of these percentages are taken into account, it becomes clearer that there will be less money to go around, which means fewer opportunities for Division II student-athletes.
“We are a lower-cost model [no football] for Division II, but this still has an impact,” said Wyatt, who does not foresee the need to cut sports in the wake of less revenue to work with. “The information we have is substantial across the membership because there is less money for initiatives. This is going to impact all Division II athletes.”