Pat Chun called it “survival mode.”
Such is life, suddenly, for college athletic departments — including those at the University of Washington and Washington State.
The unexpected arrival of COVID-19 swallowed up spring sports across the college landscape, leaving financial shortfalls and an uncertain future in its unprecedented wake.
At UW, for example, the athletic department originally projected a surplus of $827,000 in the 2020 financial year (which ends on June 30).
It currently anticipates a deficit of $548,000 — due in part to the loss of NCAA distributions ($2.1 million), Seattle Storm game revenue ($420,000), gate revenue for UW baseball and softball ($200,000) and a Windermere Cup sponsorship ($170,000).
To counter that conundrum, UW instituted a hiring freeze as well as “absolutely a massive reduction in spending,” athletic director Jen Cohen told The Times last week. “We basically halted all of our spending.”
Meanwhile, Chun is facing a similar predicament in Pullman.
“I always make the statement that we’re the most fiscally efficient athletic department in the country, and the numbers show what we’re able to do relative to our operating budget, relative to the rest of the Pac-12 and the country,” Chun, WSU’s third-year athletic director, said in a phone interview last Thursday. “So for us cuts are a little bit different because we operate lean anyways.
“If we’re more in survival mode this year, what can we do to survive? We know that some of the cuts we’re going to ask our coaches to make this year won’t be conducive for long-term success. But we all recognize that we’re stewards of this athletic department and we have a responsibility to our student-athletes and we need to deliver on it.”
Chun, Cohen and Co. are being depended on to deliver, even if an adjusted football season — think empty stadiums or fewer games — muddies the financial waters even further.
That’s why Chun, football coach Nick Rolovich and men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith followed WSU president Kirk Schulz’s lead last month in taking voluntary 5% pay cuts through the end of the 2020-21 academic year.
Moreover, all of WSU’s coaches — as well as Schulz and Chun — agreed to forgo all performance-based bonuses and incentives in FY21 as well.
As for UW, the “best-case scenario” FY21 budget — which assumes a full football season with fan attendance — still calls for a 10% cut in the operating budget ($4.89 million) and a 5% overall salary reduction ($1.93 million) through voluntary cuts, a hiring freeze and a reduction in overtime and hourly work.
Cohen said she has committed to a pay cut and conversations have been had with coaches about eventually following suit.
Forfeiting performance-based bonuses is also “definitely an idea that could come to fruition in time.”
So much hinges, ultimately, on what the college football season looks like this fall.
But, to supplement the significant financial uncertainty, UW plans to launch a “Huskies All In” fundraising campaign sometime in the next few months.
“The reality is that any dreams that we’ve had to grow and get better at the university have always started with donor and fan support,” Cohen said. “Our donor and fan support is exceptional and it’s what sets us apart from a lot of other institutions. Whenever we’ve had a dream to get better, we’ve gone to them and it’s happened and they’ve supported us and we’ve (launched new athletic) programs or we’ve been able to improve recruiting or hire a coach because of their support. So this is no different. The only difference is that everybody is personally impacted by this pandemic — financially, health-wise, personally, anxiety level. So we recognize that. We want to be really acknowledging the impact this is having on the lives of our fans and our supporters.”
At this point, it’s unclear just how much support will be required. UW’s “best-case scenario” budget — which was presented to the university’s Board of Regents last week — projected a $1.6 million deficit in FY21, despite the aforementioned cost-saving measures.
So, in the worst-case scenario — namely, the continued widespread cancellation of college sports — would UW or WSU consider cutting athletic programs?
“Any scenario possible heading into next year we’ve looked at and modeled,” Chun said. “Right now, on May 14, it’s a hair too early to decide what fall is going to look like, just because there’s no certainty with fall. But we’re probably going to have to make … like I said, we’ve modeled a bunch of things. We’ve modeled different cuts and how we schedule a little bit differently for some of our Olympic sports.
“So any possible scenario in which we can cut expenses, we’ve looked at. How deep we need to go, that’s the to-be-determined that we’ll work with our campus to figure out.”
Added Cohen: “I think everything is on the table for how we would mitigate a devastating loss, which would be no football season and/or some sort of expectation where you still have to operate some portion of your program and still provide opportunities for students but wouldn’t have a revenue sport funding it. That being said, (cutting sports) is not something that we’re talking about right now.
“There’s other ways you can look at it. You can look at shortened seasons. I think some people may look at suspension of programs versus dropping programs. It’s so counter to who we are. The thing that makes us so special is the diverse number of sports and student-athletes that we have and how good they are — how high-quality they are in their sports and in the classrooms. So we’ll fight like hell.”