In mid-April, with Washington State’s athletic department already reeling from the forfeiture of spring sports, athletic director Pat Chun said it wasn’t worth discussing the financial shortfalls the school would face if the COVID-19 pandemic outlasted the summer and bled into the month of August, potentially impacting the lucrative football season that largely keeps the other 14 athletic programs in Pullman afloat.
Chun’s spent more than two decades in college athletics, working closely with prominent football minds such as Urban Meyer, Lane Kiffin, Mike Leach and Nick Rolovich, so he’s acutely aware of the common adage “one play at a time.”
That’s the approach Chun and most of his colleagues in the Pac-12 and across the country adopted in the spring, hoping COVID-19 would show some mercy before college football’s scheduled start in September.
Still, in the back of his mind, Chun knew what the implications would be if the United States was unable to contain the fast-spreading virus that had claimed more than 100,000 American lives by the beginning of June.
“I’d argue there’s no point in us to even budget a no football season,” Chun told The Spokesman-Review in April, “because it’ll be destructive for our athletic program if there’s no football season.”
So, to use another football analogy, what the Cougars face now is fourth-and-20 from their 2-yard line, and there’s no playbook to instruct them on what to do next.
Tuesday, the Pac-12 joined the Big Ten to become the second Power 5 conference to cancel fall sports, but differed from the Big Ten in that it won’t allow athletic competition until Jan. 1, which not only impacts the four fall sports programs at WSU – football, soccer, volleyball and cross country – but men’s basketball, women’s basketball and swimming.
Now that college sports’ doomsday has come and gone, what’s next?
“Now we’ll go forward, this is post-apocalypse for any athletic department,” Chun said Thursday during a media webinar. “The full scope of our revenue losses won’t be clear for some time, but we do know they’ll be significant.”
When WSU presented its athletic budget at the most recent Board of Regents meeting, held virtually near the end of June, it made projections for the 2020 fiscal year based on the football season occurring, and with full attendance. According to the proposed budget, WSU expected to earn $8.6 million from ticket sales, $10.8 million from contributions/endowment and another $34.6 million from NCAA/Pac-12 distribution.
While Chun wasn’t able to provide an estimated dollar figure for how much the department would lose, he reiterated multiple times throughout a 20-minute conversation the amount would be substantial.
“It’s hard to forecast right now,” Chun said. “We know what the losses in terms of ticket revenue could be. We’ve gone on a campaign to ask our season ticket-holders to either donate or pay forward their ticket purchases for this past year.
“So I don’t have those exact numbers at this point. I can’t forecast it today because it’s just too early, but we know they will be significant.”
When the Pac-12 shifted to a 10-game, conference-only schedule at the beginning of the month, it caused the Cougars to lose two nonconference home games. WSU’s athletic department enacted a series of budget cuts and furloughs. Noncontract employees each received two-week furloughs, and contracted employees agreed to voluntary 5% salary reductions.
WSU may salvage some of the money it would otherwise forfeit if the Pac-12 is able to form a spring football model. The conference will spend the next four months determining if that’s practical, while simultaneously hoping for a significant drop in COVID-19 cases.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s feasible, but I know we’re going to do our best to see if we can make it feasible,” Chun said.
“I think we owe it to our student-athletes to see if there’s an option out there that make sense relative to 12 months of football, so there are a lot of variables that will go into this that we’ll either be able to come up with a model that is conducive for our student-athletes, or it’s not. … If we can’t get there as a league, not just with football but with any of our sports, we’ll make the same decision again rooted in health and safety.”
One key component for that to happen will be improvements in COVID-19 testing over the next few months. Testing procedures have been inconsistent across the conference, according to multiple WSU players who have spoken to peers from other teams. It’s likely the Pac-12 would need access to more rapid point-of-care testing methods to play football in a safe manner.
“That is a key piece to it is being able to get to a place with daily testing,” Chun said.
According to a university spokesperson, the athletic department has conducted more than 800 COVID-19 tests since mid-June, returning only seven positive cases .
One day after USC athletic director Mike Bohn said he was surprised the conference folded basketball into its postponement plans by delaying competition until Jan. 1, Chun also indicated it wasn’t something that was covered before the Pac-12 CEO Group’s decision.
“That was something our CEO group added, which you understood their logic with when it was added to it,” he said.
“But no, that was not something we’d discussed before, but supported 100%.”
Chun said a handful of fall athletes have already traveled home – not permanently, necessarily – and it’s unclear if or when those teams will continue 20-hour-per-week workouts.
The Cougars football team had previously scheduled off days Monday and Tuesday, then paused activities in the wake of the Pac-12’s announcement.
“Right now, this mental-health piece is the piece we’re most concerned about,” Chun said, “and we just want to make sure wherever they’re at, it’s a decision that’s right for them and they feel supported with.”