Gophers volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon leads one of the most competitive programs at the University of Minnesota, but he didn’t take umbrage to the overwhelming focus of Tuesday’s Big Ten announcement to cancel fall sports seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.
McCutcheon understands it’s about football, football, FOOTBALL.
“I think the emphasis on football is because they are driving so many things in the college sports world,” McCutcheon said in a video call this week.
That means money — lots of it. Without fall sports, the Gophers estimated in May they would take on a $75 million loss in the current 2021 fiscal year through June. That would be a 60 percent blow compared to their overall budget of $123 million in 2020.
With the Big Ten exploring playing fall sports in the spring, they could recoup some of those revenues, primarily deals the conference has with TV partners.
“It’s too early to tell,” McCutcheon said of possible cuts. “Obviously, the ripples will be far-reaching. But right now I have no idea.”
McCutcheon said the athletic department is looking at budget reductions of 15 to 20 percent. “So much of that is contingent upon what spring looks like,” he said. “We are hoping for a season; that is what everyone is saying we are going to get. To that end, it’s hard to plan financially for something that is still an unknown.”
In a preemptive step, Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck, McCutcheon and three other top coaches at the U took a voluntary 10 percent pay cut in the first six months of this fiscal year, which began in July. The U said those pay cuts would help the athletic department save an estimated $450,000.
After the Big Ten’s decision on Tuesday, Gophers Athletics Director Mark Coyle led an all-staff meeting, and on finances, the tone was somber.
“Our financial reality looks different now, and it’s going to require all of us to be very strategic in our thought process and how we move forward,” Coyle said.
On what that could mean for cuts, Coyle repeated statements he made in May. “We will have to look at everything, all things are on the table,” he said Tuesday.
Steve Ross, associated professor of sports management at University of Concordia-St. Paul, said the Gophers and other top-tier programs have “a little time” to wait out the losses.
“It really depends on what a spring season looks like,” said Ross, who taught at the U from 2003-15. “… How will that work with television and media rights deals? How long can they push that out? That is a big question. In the past, athletic departments have typically been able to turn back to the university for some help, but the universities themselves are also in really dire straits because of COVID.”
When Coyle repeats “all things are on the table” for cuts, that includes elimination of individual sports. Given Title IX considerations on gender equality, men’s sports are more likely to be cut.
Only three of the Gophers’ 25 sports made money in fiscal year 2019. The football program turned a $28 million profit, men’s basketball was in the black at $9.6 million and men’s hockey made $289,000.
A main reason is media rights distributions. For fiscal year 2019, the Gophers received $43.7 million in media rights (TV, radio, internet, etc.), according to the school’s financial records. It brought in another $9.3 million on other conference distributions, including $7.1 million from football bowl game revenue.
All of the Gophers’ 22 other teams lose money. Women’s basketball is deepest in the red at $3.4 million, following by volleyball at $3.1 million.
Until late last year, the Gophers football team didn’t often sell out TCF Bank Stadium for games. And with a capacity of only 50,805, Minnesota doesn’t have as big of a stadium as many Big Ten rivals, and therefore, not as much revenue shortfalls from tickets, parking, merchandise and concessions when spectators can’t be in the stands.
The absence of fans in the stadiums will hurt smaller college towns more than Minneapolis.
“Take Happy Valley,” Ross said. “Penn State, you have huge contingencies of people that are traveling from much further away, so the impact on Penn State and the local community … is going to feel a bigger sting.”
If the Gophers and the Big Ten gin up a season starting in winter or spring, the Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium could be a possible venue.
But COVID-19 will be a bigger foe for any season, says Dr. Zach Binney, pidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University in Atlanta.
Binney outlined a few primary factors:
— What kind of handle will the U.S. have on coronavirus?
“Are we going to do what we need to do to drive transmission way, way, way down so we look more like a European or Asian country?” Binney said of mask-wearing, self-isolating and social distancing while in public.
So far, the answer is no. On Wednesday, the U.S had nearly 1,500 deaths, the highest number in a single day since mid-May. There have been more than 165,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. this year, by far the most in the world.
— Is the U.S. going to have better testing?
“We could have faster tests like these paper strip tests that some of my colleagues are advocating for that work almost like a pregnancy test. $1-$2 dollars. Take every day,” Binney said. “That itself would drive down transmission if people can quickly identify when they are sick and stay home, and you get really good compliance with that. If players and staff take one of these in the morning and isolate if they are sick, that could go a long way to really keeping COVID-19 off the practice field and off the field on game day in a way that is not possible right now.”
— When will there be a vaccine?
“We need to have a vaccine, which at best would be January 2021 … a reliable, at least semi-effective, vaccine,” Zinney said. “Then you still need to produce it, distribute it and administer it. That is a process that we should expect to take months. We are not going to have herd immunity from vaccination until mid- to late-2021 at the very best.”
As the Big Ten pushed back fall sports, Ohio State’s Ryan Day, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, Purdue’s Jeff Brohm have shared ideas on what a spring season could look like.
“There are a lot of suggestions getting out there from the coaches, which has been healthy,” Fleck said Friday. “I think that is really good for having coaches’ input. But eventually it has to come from the higher-ups on the decisions we continue to make.”