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With college football hanging in the balance, so does Ole Miss Athletics’ operating budget

Revenue may not quite add up to expenses.

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Memphis at Ole Miss Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Southeastern Conference officially canceled all remaining spring sports on March 17 as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Since that Tuesday just over four months ago, the fate of collegiate athletics hangs in the balance with millions of dollars at stake.

Professional sports are beginning to return with strict, mandated guidelines and ‘bubble facilities’ while the NCAA continues to fail its constituents with a lack of clear direction and no plan. Conferences are forced to fend for themselves and many have already moved to conference-only schedules, moved football to the spring season or gone so far as to cancel fall sports entirely.

At this point in time, the SEC is not one of them. Student-athletes (a term that could prove detrimental to playing college football in 2020) have returned to campus, workouts have resumed, and summer practices are not far behind. In some ways, all signs point to go and will continue in that direction until told otherwise.

Commissioner Greg Sankey has been hesitant to give a definitive answer on whether the year will continue as scheduled and feels a “responsibility not to just say, we’re done.” Even still, he has expressed concern that if virus trends in the United States continue, a season as planned is likely not possible and his concern is “high to very high.”

“We put a medical advisory group together in early April with the question, ‘What do we have to do to get back to activity?’ and they’ve been a big part of the conversation,” Sankey said on ESPN’s Marty and McGee. “But the direct reality is not good and the notion that we’ve politicized medical guidance of distancing, and breathing masks, and hand sanitization, ventilation of being outside, being careful where you are in buildings. There’s some very clear advice about — you can’t mitigate and eliminate every risk, but how do you minimize the risk? ... We are running out of time to correct and get things right, and as a society we owe it to each other to be as healthy as we can be.”

The clear reality is that if college football is to be played, it will be very different and could cost athletic departments a fortune. Power 5 conference programs can likely survive one year without football and fall sports, while smaller schools will be forced to reevaluate sweeping financial cuts. If schools like Stanford and UConn have already eliminated upward of 11 sports in their entirety, there are certainly more to come.

At Ole Miss, money is tight to begin with, whether the university would like to admit it or not. Ross Bjork left the program’s financial security in shambles after pouring millions of dollars down the drain to provide “exemplary cooperation” in a five-year long losing legal battle with the NCAA. And then he bounced and left Keith Carter to pick up the pieces. Fundraising and capital has always been the Rebels’ new athletic director’s “thing,” but that expertise and initial blueprint for recuperation was thrown out the window on March 17.

Beyond the off-the-top cost of COVID-19 precautions, which we low-ball estimate at half of a million dollars, a modified (or non-existent) season could plunder Ole Miss’ operating budget. The breakdown for the 2020-2021 fiscal year is not released, presumably because of the unknown, so the impact of coronavirus can be illustrated on that from 2019-2020.

Ole Miss Athletics

There are two ways to approach the financial burden; conservative or radical. To look at the former, a season can be played in its entirety, as scheduled, with 25% fan capacity. This cuts football ticket sales, concessions and parking revenue by about three-quarters. Call it five-eights, knowing parking and concessions reach into baseball, basketball, etc. By that measurement, Ole Miss is set to lose about $10,918,912, or 10 percent of the total revenue right off the top. Now, if there are less fans, that means less game day staff and less concession workers, and so on— so it may be recoverable to some extent.

However, the more likely scenario is no fans, no concessions and no parking for an estimated loss of around $15 million. That hurts. Factor in the lack of conference games (money guarantees may be negotiable if they are cancelled), Ole Miss could lose closer to $20 million. While that number may not seem too bad when put up against the total, $20 million could cover scholarships, travel, band/cheer/dance and officials for all of Rebel athletics, not just football. And that again is an conservative estimation.

Where it really gets messy is if there is no college football. In that instance, football ticket sales are gone, game guarantees are likely gone, parking is decimated, concessions are decimated, multi-media rights / sponsorships are shattered, and the program could plausibly remain on the hook for both salaries and scholarships. Those categories account for more than 37 percent of the budget.

To further complicate things, 41.22 percent of the total budget at $46,395,000 comes from SEC revenue. This figure includes conference earnings generated from TV agreements, postseason bowl games, the College Football Playoff and SEC and NCAA championships in other sports. If there are no postseason bowl games, playoff or SEC championships, where does that money come from? Not good for business.

With a decision from Sankey and the conference coming as soon as the end of July, there remain far more questions than answers as to what will happen with college football and fall sports. While the numbers may not be exact, and estimations don’t necessarily cover all of the little monetary factors, the Ole Miss athletics budget will hurt if college football isn’t played as planned with full stadiums. And it won’t.

The extent to which the budget will be affected is yet to be determined, but it could will cost college athletic programs nationwide a price that many cannot afford to pay.