Univeristy of Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman at the pep rally Dec. 30, 2019 in downtown Tucson. University of Wyoming Cowboys fans joined the Western Thunder Marching band and spirit squad in a pep rally against the Georgia State University Panthers fans and band. Wyoming Tribune Eagle/file

LARAMIE – As the world grapples with the real world effects of COVID-19, college athletic departments around the nation are scrambling to figure out what comes next.

On March 12, the NCAA announced it was canceling all of its spring sports championships, which followed the decision the same day to not hold NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The Mountain West Conference followed the NCAA’s lead, initially suspending spring sports before ultimately cancelling them completely.

Football and men’s basketball are, generally speaking, the kings of college sports as far as revenue is concerned. Other sports generally lose money overall.

For Power Five programs, the median profit for Fiscal Year 2016 for a football program was $19,025,000. For men’s basketball, the median profit was $2,841,000. Non-Power Five programs such as the University of Wyoming, however, all sports operate at a median deficit, per the NCAA’s statistics.

UW has just four spring sports at the varsity level: men’s and women’s track and field, women’s tennis and men’s and women’s golf. Per the NCAA’s 2016 statistics, each sport operates at median deficits of $265,000 and $263,000, $190,000 and $249,000 among non-Power Five programs, respectively. UW’s latest individual breakdown of sports is for Fiscal Year 2018-19 and, while it does not breakdown sports outside of football and men’s and women’s basketball individually, the report states that “other sports” at UW lost more than $2.2 million.

So will UW actually be saving money with the loss of its spring sports seasons? The answer is complicated.

“There’s really no revenue associated with (spring sports). There’s no lost revenues. There are cost savings,” UW athletic director Tom Burman told WyoSports. “Where it’s going to cost us is the loss of NCAA basketball revenue, which funds the entire operations.”

Every Division I university is distributed money based on the overall revenue gained from the NCAA basketball tournament and its subsequent television deals. Burman said UW had projected itself to make $1.6 million from this year’s tournament, though the final number would have been fluid. That money will obviously not be made, however, which could spread athletic departments thin.

Burman said the NCAA has a money reserve and insurance but, given the fact every sport in the world is currently on hold and in a similar predicament, it could be difficult to collect that insurance at the moment. There is a realistic scenario where UW gets “far less than half” of what it slated for itself.

“It’s a huge financial challenge in the short term, and possibly next year,” Burman said.

The costs spring sports incur generally are for travel and recruiting. With seasons canceled and a moratorium on in-person recruiting, it likely will save a couple hundred thousand dollars, Burman said. In 2018-19, recruiting, travel, equipment, game expenses for “other sports” at UW cost more than $2.2 million, though it was not divided up further than that by sport.

In 2018-19, UW athletics actually lost $1,107,168 overall, per its online report. It would have been worse without direct institutional support from the university itself, which provided just over $13.5 million to the department. Without the NCAA’s funding from March Madness, it’s possible UW could find itself under water or close to it once again, which would open a new set of problems. UW made just over $1.9 million overall the previous year with a little over $13 million directly from the university.

Another issue at the moment is donations. Or, in this case, a lack thereof. Burman said many donations to athletics come in during the spring, which is currently problematic given economic uncertainty. UW athletics generates $5 million in donations, Burman said, but is currently experiencing a “pretty quiet time” on that front. Corporate sponsorships are also up in the air, as many have been forced to close or are making significantly less money amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

UW’s total operating costs for athletics in 2018-19 was a little over $48.1 million. Without money from the university and outside contributions, the athletic department had just under $24 million in revenue. The majority of athletic departments find themselves at a significant deficit without assistance. Without subsidy assistance, non-Power Five programs were at a median deficit of $22 million in 2018, per the NCAA.

In other words, every donation matters.

“If you take all the departments in the country, there are probably 20 that make money,” Burman said. “We’re not allowed to operate at a deficit. Let’s say we get $0 … the subsidy would have to grow … we would have to pay the university back.”

UW will still honor the scholarships of athletes that lost their spring seasons, per Burman. There also is the question of whether those athletes will regain a year of eligibility. The NCAA has tentatively agreed to do so, but nothing is set in stone at this point. Giving another year of eligibility is the right thing to do, Burman said, but also comes with its own set of financial issues. How do you afford to keep athletes another year while simultaneously bringing in new scholarship athletes to various programs?

“It’s the right thing, but how do we pay for it?” Burman said. “I don’t know where at the present time Wyoming stands.”

Spring football practice, while not much of a money maker or taker, also is at the forefront of the conversation in college athletics at the moment.

Last week, UW announced its practices, which were scheduled to start March 24, would be postponed indefinitely. There also is speculation the college football season as a whole could be postponed or canceled. Those conversations have taken place informally, Burman said, and an ultimate decision would be made as late as possible given the consequences. There also has been talk of an extended fall football camp so players have sufficient time to prepare the bodies for the rigors of the season.

“That’s a very difficult decision to make. It will have ramifications, not just financially but emotionally,” Burman said. “At some point, the small state of Wyoming will need something to cheer and watch … Those decisions have to be made as late as possible.”

Michael Katz covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at mkatz@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellkatz.

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