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'Changes are here': Mid-major athletic programs, conferences at financial crossroads

The Mid-American Conference will make drastic changes to the regular season and playoffs in several sports for the 2020-21 school year, including streamlining the basketball playoffs and eliminating championship tournaments, because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Jayvon Graves is looking at the positives. Graves, who completed his third year on the University at Buffalo men’s basketball team in March, sees the regular season becoming more competitive as teams pursue eight playoff berths instead of all 12 teams reaching the conference tournament.

"Everybody will be fighting their hardest to be one of the top eight seeds," he said. " The conference tournament will be all of the best teams."

Anjali Silverheels, a senior lacrosse player at Hamburg, is also trying to be optimistic. She has signed with Akron as women's lacrosse becomes a MAC-sponsored championship sport in the 2020-21 school year. On Wednesday, the MAC announced that women's lacrosse would be among eight sports that no longer will have postseason tournaments.

“We’re going through something totally different and new, for everybody,” Silverheels said. “No one is alone when we’re talking about it and going through it. Everyone is going through the same thing everybody else has to go through. We might see other divisions and other conferences hop in this trend. Playoffs are a fun part of sports, and something people really look forward to.

“But this is a new era. Covid-19 is taking away games, but it could take away a lot more. The MAC isn’t being destroyed, but changes are here.”

The changes come as colleges and universities, athletic departments and conferences reach a financial crossroads because of Covid-19. They are preparing for the loss of millions in revenue, including distributions tied to college sports, and schools across the country are making cuts that could help the long-term sustainability of college athletic departments, but will immediately impact programs and their athletes.

But the financial decisions being made are indicative not just of a challenge that collegiate sports faces. Colleges and universities are currently in limbo, planning for whether there will be in-person classes or online learning. Schools are also preparing for decreased enrollment.

“This is such an unusual circumstance, because there’s nothing like this that has ever happened,” said Mark Wilson, the chair of the finance and sports management programs at St. Bonaventure. “But it doesn’t have that much to do with sports. This is a broad cost-cutting measure.”

The changes

UB is a member of the MAC, which will eliminate postseason tournaments in baseball, softball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s tennis, women’s lacrosse and field hockey. The conference also will move to a 20-game regular season for men's and women's basketball from 18 games.

The MAC’s regular-season champions in field hockey, men’s soccer, women’s soccer, men’s tennis, women’s tennis, women’s lacrosse, softball and baseball will automatically qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Nine other sports also will have altered championship formats: eight teams for men's and women's basketball, four teams for volleyball, three-day championships for men's and women's swimming and diving, two-day championships for men's and women's indoor and outdoor track and field and two-day championships for men's and women's golf.

St. Bonaventure is a member of the Atlantic 10 Conference, which announced Thursday that it will regionalize and condense its conference schedule by 25% in seven sports, effective for the 2020-21 school year. Those changes will impact field hockey, volleyball, men’s and women's soccer, baseball, softball and women’s lacrosse.

The Atlantic 10 will also reconfigure its championships in six sports. The top four teams will qualify for the conference championships in volleyball, men’s and women's soccer, baseball, softball and women’s lacrosse. Bona fields teams in men's and women's soccer, baseball and women's lacrosse.

Officials from UB and from St. Bonaventure declined to comment on the changes.

Decreasing revenues

The biggest initial hit for colleges came when the NCAA Board of Governors reduced the annual allotment to 350 Division I schools from $600 million to $225 million following the cancellation of basketball tournaments and winter and spring championships.

UB athletic director Mark Alnutt told the News last month that he estimates at least 35% of the standard distribution the school receives from the NCAA, which is about $600,000 to $700,000, will not be available. UB, which supports 16 sports programs, drew $37,015,023 in revenue in 2018-19, according to the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) Survey.

Bona athletic director Tim Kenney did not disclose how much money he anticipates the athletic program to receive from the NCAA and the Atlantic 10, but said last month that he anticipates it could be cut by half or two-thirds from previous years. Bona, which supports 18 sports programs, drew $14,020,802 in revenue in 2018-19, according to EADA data.

Other sources of revenue are more difficult to forecast based on the changing circumstances, especially in football and basketball.

  • How many games will be played? UB's football games at Kansas State on Sept. 5 and at Ohio State on Sept. 19 stand to garner UB a potential payout of $2.7 million, for example.
  • Will fans be allowed to attend? If not, schools will lose money from tickets, parking, concessions and merchandise sales. According to the NCAA Membership Financial Report for 2019, UB athletics generated nearly $1.5 million in ticket sales and $140,000 in parking, concession and merchandise sales.
  • Will decreasing enrollment mean less in student fees available for athletics or will fees by reallocated to other areas? Will non-athletic money that has been used to subsidize athletics be spent elsewhere? UB athletics received $9.8 million from student fees and $13.4 million in direct institutional support in 2019, according to the NCAA report.

UB is in the process of formulating university budgets for the 2021 fiscal year and has yet to announce budget cuts, including potential cuts for athletics, but UB football coach Lance Leipold told the News in a recent interview that he anticipates the football budget will be impacted.

“We anticipate some things to happen and we’re prepared for some of those,” Leipold said. “We haven’t been finalized on all those things, yet.

“I’ve been a part of places in my previous jobs where, through state governments, there’s been furloughs and things like that. When does this get returned to normal? Governor (Andrew) Cuomo will probably let all state employees know where we’re at, budgetarily. As that comes through (UB) president Satish Tripathi and (athletic director) Mark Alnutt, we understand that things can happen. ”

Schools making cuts

In addition to revamping its championship formats, the MAC is also mandating cuts for individual sports, including football.

The MAC confirmed Friday that it will limit travel rosters for its 12 football programs for the 2020-21 school year. MAC football programs will have 70-player travel rosters, instead of 76. Hotel stays for football teams the night before a home game will also be eliminated; those are paid for by individual institutions, not by the MAC.

Cuts to athletic budgets, meanwhile, have been in the works at MAC schools since early April, and some of the most drastic cuts were announced this week. The only schools that have not announced cuts as of Friday evening are UB, Ball State and Miami (Ohio).

  • Akron announced Thursday it will eliminate men's golf, women's tennis and men's cross country, part of $4.4 million in cuts from its athletic budget that will also include salary reductions, staff cuts, and scholarship and operating reductions.
  • Bowling Green announced Friday that it will eliminate its baseball program as part of $2 million in cuts to its athletic department, which will save the athletic department $500,000 annually. Bowling Green will also implement furloughs for its athletic department staff for the 2021 fiscal year, and projects a $29 million shortfall for the university.
  • Kent State is considering salary cuts for its coaches as part of remedying a $110 million shortfall, and plans to cut summer-school aid to its student-athletes, according to the Kent (Ohio) Record-Courier.
  • Western Michigan intends to cut $6 million from its athletic budget, and athletic director Kathy Beauregard said she, hockey coach Andy Murray and football coach Tim Lester will take paycuts. Murray and Lester will take cuts of at least 25%.
  • Central Michigan athletic director Michael Alford will take an 8% pay cut, and football coach Jim McElwain, men's basketball coach Keno Davis and women's basketball coach Heather Oesterle each will have his or her base salary reduced by 6%, the Detroit News reported. Central Michigan's two deputy athletic directors each will take a 2% pay cut.
  • Eastern Michigan athletic director Scott Wetherbee took a voluntary 7% pay cut, according to the Detroit News.
  • Northern Illinois announced athletic director Sean Frazier and football coach Thomas Hammock will take 10% pay cuts, effective July 1. Basketball coaches Lisa Carlsen and Mark Montgomery will each take an unspecified pay cut.
  • Toledo announced athletic director Mike O’Brien will take a 20% pay cut, and that employees who earn over more than $100,000 a year will take a 10% pay cut, including men’s basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk, women’s basketball coach Tricia Cullop and football coach Jason Candle.
  • Ohio University on Friday announced university-wide layoffs and furloughs, and athletic director Julie Cromer will take a pay cut of at least 10%, while football coach Frank Solich and men's basketball coach Jeff Boals will each take 10% pay cuts.

“Schools are in panic mode right now,” Wilson said. “Their liabilities aren’t going to change, but their revenues will take a hit. They’re not taking it out on sports, but looking at it as, where do we have discretionary revenue where we can make cost cuts? Some of those are non-revenue sports, and it’s, ‘Here’s some areas where we may be able to cut.’ ”

Colleges outside the MAC and the Atlantic 10 are also making cuts that include dropping sports. In April, Cincinnati cut men’s soccer and Old Dominion cut wrestling. Also, many high-profile coaches, including Syracuse men’s basketball coach Jim Boeheim and Kansas football coach Les Miles, have taken pay cuts.

As of Friday afternoon, only one other conference had announced a modification to its championships in 2020-21. The Southern Conference, which includes East Tennessee State, Wofford and The Citadel, will reduce the number of teams qualifying for its conference championships to the top four regular-season teams in men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball, men’s and women’s tennis, softball and baseball. The Southern Conference will also reduce its conference baseball series from three days to two and its men’s and women’s golf championships from three days to two.

What the mid-major conferences are doing could also set a precedent for schools in the Power Five conferences. Many schools in those conferences earn money from lucrative television contracts, but don’t have the earning power that schools like Texas, Michigan or Clemson have. Each of those three schools brought in from $61 million to $181 million in revenue, or least 81%t of the revenue of each school’s men’s sports programs, according to data from the EADA for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Wilson, the economist from St. Bonaventure, called what is happening in the college sports landscape as a result of the pandemic “a case study.” The financial impact on college sports continues to evolve almost daily.

He also made a prognostication.

“There is a possibility that this will not go back to what it was like before,” Wilson said. “For example, banks in New York found that people are just as productive working at home, maybe even more than in the office, and they’re giving employees the permanent option to do business.

“When you change the way you do business and it doesn’t impact or positively affect the bottom line, that might open the door for change.”

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