The loss of the NCAA tournament brings a seven-figure hit to each school in the Mountain West Conference, and without the healthy return of college football in the fall, it’s possible the entire 2020-21 athletic year will be lost.
That was part of the message delivered Monday by MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson during an 11-minute video exchange with the Mountain West Network. It’s the first of two scheduled video messages he will deliver this week. The other will be released Tuesday discussing the direct impact of the pandemic on football.
Thompson said the league, which includes the University of New Mexico, is exploring multiple options to deal with projected heavy financial losses and potential budget cuts in the wake of the ongoing battle with COVID-19. Among the ideas are shortening schedules, reducing travel and limiting the number of student-athletes making trips or participating in meets.
Baseball, for instance, could potentially see a drop from the NCAA maximum of 56 games to something closer to the mid-40s, Thompson said. Other moves could be fewer nonconference games as a means to minimize travel and tighter scheduling that includes doubleheaders in baseball and softball and more games against regional opponents.
He said the MWC is facing a 15 percent to 20 percent cut of its annual operating budget, prompting a potential move to eliminate all in-person meetings, ranging from preseason media junkets for football and basketball to regular meetings for the league’s athletic directors.
“We’re going to be fine this year from a financial perspective,” Thompson said, adding that the unknowns — such as the NCAA’s recent decision to carry over spring sports scholarships to 2021 after all spring events were canceled in March — are some of the biggest challenges.
The source for funding those scholarships is still a mystery as each school, the conference and the NCAA are reeling over lost revenue during the pandemic. Several schools across the country have begun cutting sports or are seriously considering it.
All of that could be moot, however, if things don’t return to normal in the next few months. Football is the mechanism that drives the college sports engine, and without it, the long-term health of the NCAA is in dire straits.
“The matter of the fact is if there’s no college football this fall, there’s very little likelihood there will be any other sports because 85 percent of the revenue derived in college athletics comes from the sport of football,” Thompson said.
The MWC actually received an unexpected boost by holding its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments the week before the pandemic forced governments to shut down public events and enforce social distancing. The annual tournament was held a week early in March due to a homebuilders convention in Las Vegas, Nev., allowing one of the league’s top moneymaking events to go on without a hitch.
The loss of the NCAA tournament, however, came with a steep cost. Thompson said, “Each of our institutions probably lost seven figures, in excess of a million dollars, by getting 371/2 cents on the dollar from the NCAA revenue.”
He added he’s optimistic that up to 98 percent of the MWC’s distribution will be made to each of its schools from holding its basketball tournament and getting a percentage from the College Football Playoff.
“All those revenue streams held,” Thompson said. “And we were very fortunate.”
UNM is no stranger to lean times. The university eliminated skiing, men’s soccer, beach volleyball and springboard diving as a cost-cutting measure in 2018. It has operated with an athletics budget deficit in eight of the previous 11 years, thanks in part to costly contract buyouts, debt service on renovations to The Pit and lagging ticket sales that failed to meet budget projections.
“I hate to keep pounding on it, but we are so reliant on football,” Thompson said, citing the MWC’s recent TV deal with Fox and CBS to carry the league’s top games for the next decade.
“The operative we’ve been dealing with the last couple of weeks, the last month in fact, is everybody wants tomorrow’s answers today,” Thompson said.