No one knows yet whether there will be a college football season in 2020. But just about everyone has a pretty good idea what the financial impact will be if there isn’t one.
It would be devastating, potentially crippling, for schools across the country.
At the University of Florida, football is the financial engine that drives the athletic department and its overall 21 sports teams. In the 2019 fiscal year, football generated a profit of $47,950,819, while men’s basketball was the only other sport with a profit, bringing in $2,455,291. The 19 other programs finished the year $33,528,175 in the red.
So, a season without football could deliver a dire financial blow to UF.
But, for now, the University Athletic Association isn’t plotting strategy and bracing for a potential financial crisis in the fall, and possibly beyond. UF is preparing as if the football season will go on as scheduled, starting on Sept. 5 in The Swamp vs. Eastern Washington.
It’s not necessarily a bold or optimistic strategy. It’s a matter of following the advice SEC commissioner Greg Sankey passed on to the league’s 14 schools two weeks ago: “Our responsibility right now is to prepare for what’s next, and what’s next is the upcoming season,” he said.
So, at this stage, the Gators are planning for football in the fall, with the idea that fans will be in the stands.
“Obviously, there is a lot of speculation out there,” UF athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “If Sept. 5 comes and we’re expected to be hosting people, we need to be prepared to do that. We can always adjust (to not having fans).
“What happened at the SEC Basketball Tournament is a perfect example of the ability of people in college athletics to adjust. Right now, we’re not making plans to do anything but have our regular, normal fan attendance. If we have to adjust, we’ll adjust.”
Just before the start of second-round play in Nashville, the league canceled the remainder of the basketball tournament due to the threat of the coronavirus. All SEC sports, and sports across the world, have been shut down ever since.
Now a little more than four months away, the start of the 2020 football season — and the season itself — is considered in jeopardy.
So the speculation about what it would mean financially if there is no season is well underway.
It’s raising questions like, how will the UAA be able to pay coaches and facility overhead if there’s no revenue from ticket sales and television contracts?
“It’s a speculative question,” Stricklin said. “We’re not going to answer speculative questions because right now we’re planning on having both of those things. As the state reopens and as campus starts making plans to reopen, that will kind of drive our decision making.
“We’re not in a position right now (to make decisions). We’re going to plan, budget smartly, but we’re going to budget as if we’re going to play a season. If something happens and we have to adjust that, we’ll adjust it. Right now, that’s not in our thought process.”
In the meantime, UF is proceeding as if the season is going to be played this fall at some point, in some form. Fans, boosters and sponsors seem on board with that the way they have responded.
Stricklin said season-ticket renewals are ahead of where they were a year ago and that sponsors and donors/boosters have not wavered in their financial support.
“I think our whole society, everyone has hit pause. But we haven’t,” Stricklin said. “A bunch of sponsorships are done on a contractual basis. We haven’t seen a lot of movement there. In fact, we have signed some new sponsors during this time. Our development staff is reaching out to see what they can do for our partners and donors right now. No one has indicated any gift that they won’t be able to fulfill at this point.
“(Ticket sales) have been really good. Our renewal rate is above where it was this time last year. Obviously, there’s a lot of excitement for Gator football. I know our fans are looking forward to the day we can all come back together.”
It’s a risk-free investment for ticket purchasers. If the season doesn’t happen, they will receive a full refund.
At some schools across the country, coaches have taken pay cuts and there has been speculation about possible furloughs. Those possibilities are not in play at UF at this point, Stricklin said.
“Everybody is getting paid at their regular rate,” he said. “We’re fortunate right now. This year we’re going to have a little less revenue for the current fiscal year, but we have fewer expenses.
“We’re going to come out in a neutral position this current year, so there’s really no need to do it currently. We think we’re able to put the budget together next year that won’t include that. So, that’s not in our thought process right now.”
Neither is delaying the construction of significant facility upgrades for baseball and football.
Florida Ballpark, UF’s new $65-million baseball stadium, is due for completion in June. Construction of the $85 million, 140,000-square foot James W. "Bill" Heavener Football Training Center, which will serve as the new standalone home for Florida football, is set to begin this fall with a completion date of early 2022.
“We plan to keep moving forward there (with the new football facility),” Stricklin said. “We’re excited.”
Football coach Dan Mullen praised Stricklin and the UAA for the way the program’s overall financial situation is being handled.
“Obviously, we have such a strong athletic department,” Mullen said. “Everybody has tried to be extremely budget conscious in what we’re doing right now.”
For example, Mullen has a few openings on his support staff that he is leaving vacant for now.
“A couple people have left and we haven’t replaced them yet,” he said. “It’s not immediately essential right now. We’re going to wait before we make those decisions. Everyone is trying to be as fiscally responsible as possible to get through this time until we get back on the field.”
No one, of course, knows when that will be.
In the meantime, UF is moving forward with its plan to have a football season in the fall.
“We’re not playing football for four-plus months. Volleyball and soccer just a little under four months,” Stricklin said. “There’s a lot of time. We have a lot more time ahead of us to find out stuff (about the virus). There are optimistic things out there about advances medically, and testing and tracing.
“We’re going to let the experts continue to do their thing and we’ll take the lead from our community leaders and campus leaders to make sure we keep everybody safe.
“We’re learning more and more every day that goes by. The more we can hold off making long-term decisions is probably wise at this point.”