Utah State AD John Hartwell is making tough budget calls as pandemic grinds on. There are still more questions than answers.
Utah State's Sam Merrill hoist the trophy for MVP after defeating San Diego State in an NCAA college basketball game for the Mountain West Conference men's tournament championship Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
The Utah State University athletic department currently sponsors 16 intercollegiate sports, which is the minimum allowed for an FBS school.
If Aggies athletic director John Hartwell has anything to say about it, USU will remain at 16 whenever college athletics get rolling again.
Earlier this month, commissioners from the Group of Five conferences (AAC, Mountain West, MAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA) sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert asking for alterations of NCAA bylaws in order to save money amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The key piece of the request was for relief from the minimum number of sports sponsorships required.
On April 24, the NCAA’s Division I Council announced
it would not offer a blanket waiver for sports-sponsorship relief, but individual schools could request sports-sponsorship waivers.
With this problem now in the hands of the individual schools as opposed to the NCAA, enter Hartwell, whose athletic department in fiscal year 2019 reported revenue of $38.7 million vs. expenses of $39.1 according to the office of the state auditor.
“As we’ve looked at the expenditure side of things, we have tried to take three things off the table,” Hartwell told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week. “We do not want to cut sports. Even if the NCAA had given that waiver, I don’t see how you shelve a sport and bring it back. From the beginning, seven weeks ago when we started this process, we wanted to leave sports, scholarships and, where we could, jobs, off the discussion table.
He added: “Those three things, we have tried very hard to protect. We obviously don’t have a crystal ball, and we don’t know what “normal” is going to be on the other side, but so far, we have been able to leave those three things alone.”
Hartwell’s desire to leave his 16 sports alone and not go to the NCAA for relief is a welcomed sight at a time when sports that are in the red are in danger of getting cut across the country.
On April 14, the University of Cincinnati announced it would discontinue its men’s soccer program. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer,
that program had $907,745 in total operating expenses against just $181,247 in operating revenue for fiscal year 2019.
Two weeks prior, Old Dominion announced it would discontinue wrestling. The Norfolk, Va. school, which plays out of Conference USA, will have 16 sports for the 2020-21 academic year.
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Hartwell, Athletic Director, Utah State University talks about the new menÕs college basketball showcase featuring BYU, Utah, USU, and Weber State, at Vivint Smart Home Arena, Thursday, July 21, 2016.
Assuming Hartwell can hold on to his desire of leaving sports, scholarships and jobs alone, cost savings are going to have to come from somewhere. Hartwell’s fiscal 2020 budget was projected at $36.4 million. When he and his staff began looking at fiscal 2021 in February and March, Hartwell says it was budgeted north of $38 million. With the COVID-19 pandemic causing uncertainty and educated guessing in terms of ticket sales, donations, student fees and lack of NCAA distribution after the NCAA Tournament was canceled, Utah State’s athletic budget for fiscal 2021 is currently projected at $35.5 million.
One factor that will help Hartwell is if, not only the 2020 football season gets played, but the full 2020 season. One of the Aggies’ four non-conference games in 2020 is a trip to Seattle to face the University of Washington, which will yield a $1.5 million guarantee. The potential for a truncated, conference-only schedule exists for FBS teams, in which case the Washington game and accompanying seven-figure check go away.
“Pretty much across the board, amongst us ADs, we are going to do everything we can to play a full football season,” said Hartwell, whose football team in 2020 will begin a home-and-home agreement with Washington State, continue its long-standing series with BYU, and host Southern Utah for a guaranteed amount of $330,000. “We may have some tweaks from what it looks like today, but I’m of the opinion, as are my peers, Gary Anderson and his peers, that we want to try everything possible to play a full season.”
The fact the Mountain West is beginning a six-year, $270 million media rights deal this fall only adds to the notion that the league needs a full 12-game season this fall.
Football contracts are agreed to and signed years in advance of the contest actually being played, while men’s hoops contracts for one-off guarantee games are drafted each offseason. Basketball is one spot where Hartwell and the rest of the Mountain West ADs can potentially find some relief.
Mountain West members voted two years ago to allow only one non-Division I game per season. For example, Utah State has made a habit in recent seasons of playing an NAIA team late in its non-conference schedule.
Earlier this month, Mountain West schools, in an effort to help budgets and curb spending, voted unanimously to allow a second non-conference game against a non-Division I school. The going rate for a one-off guarantee game between Division I teams is roughly between $85,000 and $100,000. A guarantee game against a Division II or NAIA program can be had for between $5,000 and $10,000.
Utah State’s 2020-21 basketball schedule is not complete, but Hartwell says the Aggies have one non-D1 game already agreed to and are in the market for a second. One viable option besides a second non-D1 game is signing on for a neutral-site game or event, which would include a guaranteed sum of money for the Aggies.
“We are still in the process of looking at a lot of things,” Hartwell said. “The number of contests we play vs. the NCAA minimum number of games played, travel-party sizes, mode of transportation in terms of bussing vs. flying.
“We’re plugging in numbers, we know it’s fluid, and I’m sure we’ll have to adjust our budgets further.”