What the cancellation of spring sports seasons means for college athletic department ledgers

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

The Tennessee softball team was about to fly to Texas A&M when the Lady Vols received word to stay put. The coronavirus pandemic had canceled the trip.

Money saved.

Days later, the SEC canceled the remainder of all spring sports seasons. Tennessee refunded fans who had purchased tickets to upcoming home games.

Money lost.

Canceling the men's basketball’s NCAA Tournament hurt athletic department ledgers, and any disruption of the football season would be a major financial hit to a Power 5 athletic department like Tennessee’s. 

Assessing the financial impact of the coronavirus-fueled cancellation of NCAA spring sports is more complicated.

Ticket revenue and concession sales were lost, and contributions could dip, but athletic departments are saving on travel, meals and gameday expenses. 

Memphis athletics director Laird Veatch said recently the athletic department is projecting a $2.5 million deficit for the 2020 fiscal year. But, he added, halting spring sports mitigated the damage.

“We are certainly down in revenues, there’s no question,” Veatch told the Rotary Club of Memphis in April. “Primarily from (lost revenue due to the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament), some possible conference revenues, a potential impact in donations — or, maybe, timing of donations. A lot of that, for us, has fortunately been offset by expense savings — less travel, obviously — and we also had a good year (overall) financially.”

For Tennessee, too, halting college sports in March resulted in reductions to revenues and expenses for the athletic department.

"It’s difficult to quantify that financial impact with an exact number," Tennessee athletic department spokesman Tom Satkowiak said in an email. "More than anything, we remain saddened about the competitive opportunities several of our student-athletes missed out on, and we were quick to make the decision to allow spring-sport seniors to return when the NCAA made that an option.

"It should also be noted that winter sports were affected as well, as postseason opportunities vanished. After winning it’s first-ever SEC title, our women’s swimming & diving team had a legitimate shot at winning an NCAA championship. But it never got that chance, which is heartbreaking."

At Austin Peay, the department is saving because the spring sports seasons were halted, but that won't offset losses in  revenue caused in part by a reduction in NCAA distribution, athletics director Gerald Harrison said.

The NCAA receives most of its revenue from the men's basketball NCAA Tournament television and marketing rights, as well as championship ticket sales.

“The spring sports savings represents a fraction of the potential losses at this point," Harrison said. "The losses we know of at this point include a severe reduction in all NCAA funds, which represents a significant portion of our annual revenue.”

A closer look at the financials 

With few exceptions, spring sports operate at an annual deficit within athletic department budgets.

Cancelling the remainder of spring sports seasons won’t keep those programs from operating at a loss during the 2020 fiscal year because the programs’ biggest expenses — scholarships and coaching salaries — are fixed costs.

Athletic departments are required to submit an annual revenue and expense report to the NCAA. The reports for the 2019 fiscal year are the most recent available. Those reports, obtained by the USA TODAY Network, allow schools to list some expenses and revenues as being not specific to a particular report. That makes it difficult to get a true financial assessment for a particular sport. 

At Tennessee, the baseball and softball programs combined to operate at a $4.9 million loss for the 2019 fiscal year, according to its financial report. All told, UT’s nine athletic programs that play at least a portion of their season during the spring combined to operate at a $16 million loss for 2019.

Memphis spring sports operated at a $6.2 million deficit during the 2019 fiscal year, generating $267,998 in revenues while reporting $6.4 million in expenses. Travel costs alone totaled $857,123 for Memphis' eight sports that play at least a portion of their season in the spring. Meals for athletes not associated with travel accounted for $60,076 in expenses.

Other than baseball and softball, most spring sports conduct a portion of their season in the fall. Department financial reports submitted to the NCAA do not separate when expenses are incurred. Track and field financials include cross country and the indoor and outdoor seasons. Only the outdoor season is in the spring.

Among Tennessee’s public institutions, UT baseball generated the most revenue for a spring sport during the 2019 fiscal year, logging $1.2 million. Comparatively, salaries, benefits and bonuses to coach Tony Vitello and his assistants cost UT $1 million.

Tennessee baseball and softball are the school's only spring sports that generate ticket revenue.

At Memphis, Middle Tennessee State and Austin Peay, baseball is the lone spring sport that generates at least four figures in ticket revenue. Among that trio, MTSU baseball’s $31,634 in ticket revenue led the way in 2019. That pales in comparison to the program’s $198,283 in travel costs.

At Tennessee State, no spring sports generate ticket revenue, meaning the athletic department loses money every time a team competes, whether home or away.

Vanderbilt, a private institution, declined to disclose any financial records or comment on revenue. The baseball team, which won last year’s national title, generates ticket and concessions revenue. Lipscomb and Belmont are also private institutions and did not disclose financial reports.

Vanderbilt refunded fans for season tickets and single-game tickets of canceled baseball games. The Commodores had played 12 home games, where they sold concessions and beer, before the season abruptly concluded.

Much like the state’s public universities, Vanderbilt can expect a decrease in spring sports travel expenses. Teams in seven sports canceled a combined 40 road trips, including regular-season and conference tournaments. And that’s not including travel expenses for NCAA postseason play.

The baseball team, for example, spent more than two weeks at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, last season. Judging by their high rankings, Vanderbilt’s men’s golf, women’s tennis and women’s bowling teams likely would have advanced deep into the NCAA postseason and racked up travel expenses without generating significant revenue.

Seasons halted after costly month for softball 

Halting spring sports seasons won't eliminate all spring travel expenses for the 2020 fiscal year. In fact, athletic departments would have been better off financially had the cancellation of spring sports occurred sooner.

February is an especially pricey month for the state's softball teams, which spend much of the month on the road competing in warmer climates.

At Tennessee, MTSU, Memphis and Austin Peay, softball programs logged the most travel expenses during the 2019 fiscal year of any spring sport.

Last season, Lady Vols softball accumulated $416,589 in travel expenses. Tennessee played February tournaments this season in Tempe, Arizona; Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; and Tampa, Florida.

MTSU softball played in two tournaments in Florida, plus tournaments in California and Louisiana. Memphis softball played tournaments this season in Hawaii, Florida and Alabama. Austin Peay stayed closer to home, competing in tournaments in Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky.

Vols baseball, softball will see notable revenue hits

Tennessee baseball and softball had not played their SEC openers, but the baseball team hosted 14 non-conference games, while softball hosted eight. While those games generated ticket revenue, it's a fraction of what the programs could have produced throughout a full season. SEC games and warmer weather later in the season offer the opportunity for bigger crowds.

Tennessee baseball probably could make the best case among spring sports at a state public institution that halting the season did not assist the department’s ledger.

Baseball’s ticket sales, contributions, concessions and parking revenue generated $805,493 in 2019. Comparatively, it tallied $686,860 in travel and game expenses, with another $34,617 in athlete meals, although those meal costs are spread throughout the year.

Baseball’s revenue stood to increase this season. Tennessee was 15-2 when the season stopped, with excitement building for the program. Plus, beer sales were permitted in general seating areas at Lindsey Nelson Stadium this season, which would have increased concessions revenue.

As for Tennessee softball, it already incurred its most costly road trips by the time the season was halted, and it did not have the opportunity to host SEC games that offer the greenest pastures for ticket sales and concessions. Softball, like baseball, was selling beer this season, and the program might have been financially better off had the season finished.

But the cancellation of Tennessee rowing road trips to Alabama, Virginia, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Texas? That’s tens of thousands of dollars saved.

USA TODAY's Steve Berkowitz, The Commercial Appeal's Jason Munz, The Tennessean's Adam Sparks, News Sentinel's Mike Wilson and The Leaf Chronicle's George Robinson contributed to this story.

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's FREE text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.