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Utah athletic department navigated unorthodox 2020-21, but pandemic remnants will permeate into next year

Fiscal 2021 budget deficit finalized at roughly $32 million, down from initial projection of between $50-60 million

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham leans in to sign the final steel beam being raised into place at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021.

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To say the University of Utah had a tough year inside its athletic department might actually be downplaying the effect the COVID-19 pandemic had on seemingly everything.

An eight-figure athletic department fiscal budget deficit. Daily COVID-19 testing for student-athletes. Two canceled football games after a roster-wide virus outbreak. Strict health-and-safety protocols inside athletics facilities. Fickle basketball schedules for both genders, which were altered more than once. Furloughs and layoffs inside the athletic department, and on down the line of umpteen factors and happenings in an unprecedented, unorthodox time in intercollegiate sports.

Finally, as May arrived and competitions at Utah began to wind down for the year, Utes athletic director Mark Harlan came upon two reflection points.

On May 6, general commencement was conducted virtually, while in-person, outdoor convocations for each college were held May 5-8 at either Rice-Eccles Stadium or the Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre. Eighty-two student-athletes from all 20 sports Utah sponsors were part of the festivities.

“You finally saw student-athletes in gowns, walking around, taking pictures, getting ready for the ceremony,” Harlan told The Salt Lake Tribune during a recent phone interview. “Honestly, that was a reflection moment about the year they’ve been through and for the seniors, about their experience here. The pressures they’ve been under, but at the same time, about how they’ve been able to succeed.”

The second reflection point was a May 29 baseball game against USC. That marked Utah’s final home event, bookending a seven-month period of COVID-impacted competition, marked at times by uncertainty, other times by optimism.

“There was never a week, or frankly, a day, that you thought coming in would be what it was,” Harlan said. “It changed every day and everyone adjusted to it so well, and it starts with our students.”

As fall looms and the countdown to the football team’s Sept. 2 opener vs. Weber State heads for two months, things are methodically moving towards some semblance of real normalcy, but the fallout from the pandemic is still going to be prevalent.

Last August, at a point when the Pac-12 had canceled all sports, including football, through at least Jan. 1, Harlan had his fiscal 2021 deficit pinned at approximately $50 million to $60 million on an operating budget of $91 million. That educated guesstimate assumed no football would be played in 2020, but there was football in 2020, so in January, Harlan told The Tribune that the deficit was looking more like $35 million.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thanks to the fact that Utah was able to play a truncated 2020 football season, Ute Athletic Director Mark Harlan says the U. Athletic Department's projected deficit of $55-60M has been significantly reduced.

With the 2020-21 competition season over, Harlan has the fiscal deficit finalized at around $32 million, which is still not good, but certainly more manageable than $50 million to 60 million.

The key factor here is how Harlan and his senior staff intend to deal with that figure. The athletic department is working with central campus to manage the deficit, which was an option Harlan had noted several times in the past.

Utah also had the option to borrow from the Pac-12 against future earnings. According to an August 2020 report from Jon Wilner of The Mercury News, the league was willing to provide a maximum of $83 million for each member school at a rate of 3.75% over 10 years.

Outside of Harlan noting that this will be a “multiyear approach,” the terms of how exactly the athletic department is working with central campus on the deficit are unknown. Given this matter is being handled in-house, it stands to reason that the central campus option is less of a headache vs. an interest-bearing loan from the Pac-12.

“What I’m excited about is, it’s not going to restrain anything we want to do going forward and as we step into this next year and beyond,” Harlan said. “With the great work of university leadership, understanding the importance of our department, understanding we’re one Utah in how we approach it, we’re going to work together and nothing’s going to hold us back from all our goals.

“We’ll continue to work with the university in a fair way to respond to the deficit, in a way that will not have us hamstrung as we move forward.”

The fiscal deficit will not hold the department back, so everything is full steam ahead, but it’s important to keep in mind that the rules are going to be different for student-athletes who opt to receive a COVID-19 vaccine vs. those that don’t.

With the football, basketball and gymnastics teams currently on campus, fully vaccinated student-athletes are not subject to department-run COVID-19 testing, per Harlan. Student-athletes who aren’t vaccinated still must go through testing protocols.

It should be noted that Utah cannot mandate that student-athletes get vaccinated. Harlan declined to reveal what percentage of student-athletes are fully vaccinated, which falls in line with the athletic department declining, at the height of the pandemic, to reveal how many student-athletes were testing positive. Harlan did indicate the number of fully vaccinated athletes was rising on a weekly basis and that he was happy with where things stood.

As Utah goes about its vaccination business as it sees fit, the Pac-12 medical advisory board is in the process of creating its mandates and suggestions going forward, which will provide a roadmap for the league’s members.

“We are subject to the state laws in that regard, similar to masking, so our approach here is just educating and really listening to them,” Harlan said. “That’s the process we continue to follow. Obviously, the unvaccinated student-athlete within the Pac-12 may have different testing and more intense testing if you get caught up in contact tracing, so we want to make sure they understand the effect of non-vaccination.”

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