LARAMIE – It was a conversation far too similar for University of Wyoming athletics director Tom Burman’s liking.
Just five months earlier, in mid-March, Burman was forced to tell athletes their spring sports seasons were canceled. On Monday, he had to break that same news to his fall athletes, including the school’s breadwinner, football.
The Mountain West announced that its fall sports were indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the potential to play those sports in the spring. The sports impacted are football, men’s and women’s cross-country, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball.
The Mountain West was the second conference to call off fall sports, following the Mid-American Conference last Saturday. The Pac-12 and Big Ten have since followed suit.
No balmy Saturdays at War Memorial Stadium? It’s a thought no one imagined after the Cowboys (8-5 in 2019) throttled Georgia State 38-17 in the Arizona Bowl on New Year’s Eve. UW looked poised for a breakthrough 2020 season, a campaign that had visions of an MW title.
But all the hard work put in by student-athletes to stay out of harm’s way, and its subsequent successes (no positive COVID-19 tests in the athletic department) ultimately didn’t mean much.
“Some anger, some tears. Everybody deals with these things differently,” Burman told WyoSports on Wednesday. “These are very bright young people. They knew the season was no guarantee.”
The loss of fall sports, particularly football, is hitting college athletic departments where it hurts the most: the wallet. Without football, Burman projects UW will lose between $8 million and $15 million in revenue between TV deals, ticket sales, concessions and the like. There are savings to be had, however, as the athletic department will save between $3 million and $5 million by not playing due to travel and other expenses.
In 2018-19, UW football made just under $12.5 million in operating revenue. The figures for 2019-20 were unavailable.
Cost-cutting started taking place at UW in the spring, and those moves have helped soften the blow. But that doesn’t mean the school is in the clear as far as layoffs are concerned.
Burman has already voluntarily taken a 10% pay cut.
“My goal would be no, but we already have four or five positions that we will not fill for next year,” Burman said. “It is possible there will be furloughs … (and) salary reductions. Everything will be on the table. But we can’t cut our way out of this.”
Non-revenue sports stood to lose the most from the loss of football, as football makes the majority of the money that funds those programs. The NCAA minimum
number of sports for Division I programs is 16. UW currently sits at 17, leaving little margin to cut. While it’s possible a sport could be dropped, the savings likely wouldn’t make the move worth it, Burman said.
“Is there going to be much savings in eliminating one sport? No,” Burman said. “My gut feeling is, at the present time, there has to be a better way.”
Ultimately, it was the university presidents of the MW who voted to postpone fall sports. But Burman said he and his fellow athletics directors knew this was coming a few days in advance, even with the release of a revised MW schedule just days prior.
As well as UW handled safety protocol, the Cowboys needed teams to play. Ultimately, COVID-19 wasn’t getting better in other MW states, like California and Nevada. There was only so much Wyoming could control.
Burman said he was not in favor of a delayed schedule in the first place, as he expects COVID-19 to get worse as students return to campus, not better. He wanted to get as many games in as possible.
“I don’t think anyone in the industry that works in college football thinks, ‘Ah hell, this is going to happen,’” Burman said. “We were pretty leery.”
Many questions remain about the viability of playing fall sports in the spring, particularly with football and the prospect of playing two seasons in a single calendar year from a safety perspective. Burman said he thinks it can work if the spring schedule is condensed (eight games or so) and the fall starts a bit later, with a 10-game slate.
Above all else, however, the players should have a say in whether they want to play a spring season. They are the ones potentially risking additional injuries.
“I can imagine most kids don’t think about injuries,” Burman said. “(But) they should have a seat at the table. And they will be heard at Wyoming.”
Fall athletes will still be able to practice and work out 20 hours per week, though football is currently on pause as coach Craig Bohl devises a plan for moving forward. COVID-19 testing will continue for athletes, though its frequency is still being determined as the university itself creates its testing plan for all students. Athletes will also have access to their meal/nutrition plans, though it will be scaled back.
There will also be access to mental health professionals, as athletes cope with the loss of their seasons.
As far as eligibility is concerned, Burman imagines it will be similar to what happened in the spring, where senior athletes who wished to return for another year were granted an additional year of eligibility, if they so desired. Burman expects the NCAA to be flexible with scholarships, etc., as it was in the spring.
The question, of course, is how does UW pay for keeping athletes on campus another year? Bohl donated $100,000 to fund the scholarships of the spring sports athletes who chose to come back. The number for fall sports would be much higher, though.
“We have to figure out how to fund it, but we’re going to fund it,” Burman said. “I will drive around the state until my tires are bald.”
The Pac-12, Big Ten, MAC and MW are the four conferences that have announced so far that there won’t be sports in the fall. Several individual programs, like the University of Connecticut, and University of Massachusetts, have canceled, as well.
That still leaves several conferences that intend to play football, which could leave programs like UW open to “poaching.” Burman said if players intend to transfer, they should do so with 2021 in mind, not 2020.
Burman also added that attempting to play the fall season in a different conference, as Nebraska (Big Ten) has openly said it might attempt, “is not realistic.”
“I personally am doubtful that anyone plays football in the fall of ’20,” Burman said.
With the decision to play fall sports being up to conferences, there is a distinct lack of unity. Some have seen the medical information, which, in recent days, has included data on myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle that can be caused by COVID-19) and either been swayed by it or decided to stay the course. The lack of consensus is concerning.
The NCAA isn’t really in charge of major conference football. The Power Five conferences are, Burman said.
“There’s a power play that’s been going off for quite a while (between Power Five conferences),” Burman said. “We were not unified as an industry … and it made us look bad.”
Some student-athletes have returned home to await the next steps since the MW made its announcement, an admittedly concerning proposition, given the known safety parameters in Laramie compared to wherever the athlete may live.
But at the end of the day, UW’s student-athletes have the right to do what they want. They are not employees.
“We are very worried about it … they are safer here than they are in most of their communities. But they are not workers. They wanted to go home,” Burman said. “That’s one of my concerns about why I think waiting had some value. It keeps them here, it makes them focused. Many of them, their identity is in their sports. … We have to worry about their mental health.”
Of course, the other group impacted by the lack of a fall sports season are football season ticket holders. Any season ticket holders will have their money refunded, if desired, or the money can go toward the next season, whether that be in the spring or fall. The money can also be donated to benefit student-athletes in some capacity.
“Our season ticket holders are the best,” Burman said. “If they want their money back, they will get their money.”
College sports are currently at a crossroads. Over the past few months, student-athletes have found their voices and become their own biggest advocates, with #MWUnited and #WeWanttoPlay among the movements that gained traction nationally. That isn’t a bad thing, Burman said. Athletes should have their voices heard.
The financial landscape of college sports could also be changing, as revenue comes to a halt nationally without football in the fall. But, as was the case with player movements, that isn’t a negative.
“We’re going to be fine. It’s a tough time to be in college athletics, but it’s a tough time to be in the airline industry (and) the restaurant industry,” Burman said. “We have to redefine ourselves.
“In some respects, I hope (things change). I would like to see us be more conservative. (College sports has) operated under the model, ‘spend it as fast as it comes in.’ That’s not a very wise way to run any program.”