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Utah athletic department finished fiscal 2021 with $31 million deficit

Fiscal 2021 included five-game 2020 football season, which was played without fans in Pac-12 stadiums.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cardboard cutout fans in the stands as the Utah Utes hosts the USC Trojans, NCAA football at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020.

As the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic threatened a full 2020 college football season, the possibility of a shortened, or even canceled season made at least one thing clear at the University of Utah.

Utah’s athletic department was going to finish fiscal 2021 with a sizable budget deficit — it was just a matter of how big.

Now we know.

The Utes finished FY2021, which included the 2020 football season and 2020-21 basketball season, with a budget deficit just north of $31 million against an operating budget over that span of approximately $82 million. That’s according to the school’s NCAA revenue and expense report for the last fiscal year, which was made public late last week.

That’s a large number, though it is smaller than officials originally predicted. Utes athletics director Mark Harlan originally projected a deficit of between $50-60 million. That prediction came in August of 2020, the day after the Pac-12 postponed all sports, including football, until at least Jan. 1. With the Pac-12 instituting rapid-result, daily-antigen testing in September, the league walked back that postponement, instead beginning the football season in October. After two COVID-related cancellations vs. Arizona and at UCLA, the Utes wound up playing a truncated five-game 2020 schedule without fans, per Pac-12 mandate.

Some of the specific revenue losses are glaring when compared to prior fiscal years.

Given the Pac-12 mandate not allowing fans, football and both basketball programs combined to pull in no ticket revenue, while gymnastics, which traditionally fills the 15,000-seat Huntsman Center, is listed as having $582 in ticket sales. Those four programs accounted for approximately $17.7 million in ticket sales the year before. Of that, football accounted for 86% of it during the 2019 season, which saw the Utes finish 7-0 at Rice-Eccles Stadium and 11-1 during the regular season.

The athletic department uses donations to “subsidize student-athlete scholarships, facility upgrades, and academic support.” Those were down across the board as well, from roughly $11.7 million in fiscal 2020 to about $7.9 million in fiscal 2021.

To be clear, all revenue streams were down, media rights and Pac-12 distribution among them, but Utah finishing fiscal 2021 that deep in the red includes the fact the athletic department received $5,933,069 in student fees, and another $4,862,896 in direct institutional support, which includes “facilities, general and administrative, and Title IX support.” Both of those figures are on par with what the athletic department received in fiscal 2020.

The department notes in its financial report that it receives state funds in the form of tuition waivers, Title 53, special, and continuing scholarships.

An operating budget of $82 million, which is low compared to the last five years, means Utah saved money in some spots.

A five-game football schedule included only two road games, so football-related travel was 56% less expensive compared to fiscal 2020. The entire athletic department spent $2 million less on travel year over year.

Recruiting expenses were also lessened given the NCAA’s months-long ban on in-person contact wasn’t lifted until June 1, 2021. While Utah football spent $738,446 to recruit in fiscal 2020, a number that was smaller than normal after the in-person ban took hold in the final months of that fiscal year, it spent just $214,850 in fiscal 2021.

Harlan said in June that the athletic department is working with central campus to manage the deficit. At the time, he called the situation a “multi-year approach,” but how exactly the athletic department is working with central campus on the deficit is unknown.

“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 at the time. “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.”

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