The Financial Impact of COVID-19 on College Athletics


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Prior to COVID-19, Penn State generated more than $38 million annually in ticket sales from its 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium alone. The University of Michigan, the poster child for financially vulnerable giants, lost about half of its massive $200 million sports budget thanks to COVID-19-related postponements and cancellations. Some of the biggest schools in the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences threatened $150 million by deciding to play conference-only games. Individual stories about the wrath of COVID-19 on collegiate athletics aren’t hard to come by. What is elusive is an overall view of how far the domino effects have spread.

Read: Is it financially worth it for schools to play collegiate sports now?

A UNC fundraiser tells the story of college sports

Like many schools, the University of North Carolina compensated for COVID-19-related athletic losses by reaching out to its donors. A November 2020 UNC fundraiser revealed how dire the situation had gotten. Without fans, the biggest names in college sports have struggled to support the immense size of their own programs. The Tar Heels sent an urgent letter to college funders asking for donations they could afford to save UNC’s 28 financially failing college programs. Combined, these programs grossed nearly $108 million in 2018, but were expected to lose between $30 million and $50 million in 2020 from missed ticket sales and TV revenue.

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Schools abandoned low-income programs

As COVID-19 forced schools to make difficult decisions about which programs to fund and which to shut down, those that didn’t fill stadiums and garner TV ad buys were the most vulnerable. Old Dominion has cut its wrestling schedule. Central Michigan cut the indoor and outdoor men’s track and field. LaSalle cut off men at swimming, diving, and water polo.

See: Colleges that have cut athletics due to budget constraints

Worst of all was Stanford, where the reality of COVID-19 made it impossible to continue funding the school’s gargantuan DI athletic program, which included a whopping 36 varsity teams. The pandemic has reduced this stock by almost a third. Administrators said in an open letter: “Stanford will be retiring 11 of our varsity athletic programs at the conclusion of the 2020-21 academic year: men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, light rowing, men’s rowing, women’s co-ed and sailing, squash , synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling.”

Non-revenue programs create tomorrow’s Olympians

Much has been written about the outstanding student-athletes whose career prospects have been jeopardized by reduced or canceled senior years, but the NCAA isn’t just bringing talent to the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB. College sports double as a feeder system for the Olympics, attracting talent from these now-threatened non-revenue college programs.

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A lightweight rower named Emily Molins was one of the 300 student-athletes and staff affected by Stanford’s program cuts. According to NBC, she was on the fast track to competing in the Olympics. When Stanford stopped rowing, she had no opportunity to pursue elite sport — a requirement for anyone attempting to compete at the Olympic level.

Similar scenarios played out for countless Olympic hopefuls across the country. The individual athletes obviously face an uncertain future in terms of their ability to compete and earn sponsorships and money after college, but that’s not all. America’s Olympic teams could soon find it difficult to fill their rosters with the top talent needed to compete on the world stage.

More: 8 momentous times sports have been canceled throughout history

It doesn’t start or end with collegiate athletics

The impact of COVID-19 is being felt much further down the athletic food chain than among the NCAA’s top pros and future Olympians. High school sports have been canceled, postponed, and otherwise suspended across America, as has college and the pros. US News and World Report chronicled how these dynamics rocked the big-money business of college recruitment.

Like college seniors with NFL or NBA dreams, high school juniors and seniors lost crucial playing time during their most important season — many losing the entire season altogether. This handicap left them with fewer minutes of good film to show recruiters and fewer opportunities to impress all viewers. It also made it difficult for college scouts and recruiters to identify the nation’s top young talent and get them into cash cow college athletic programs like the University of Texas ($224 million in sales), Texas A&M ($213 million) and Ohio State ($211 million).

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Last updated: March 19, 2021

About the author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning author, Andrew Lisa was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the country’s largest newspaper consortium, the Gannett News Service. He has worked as a business editor for amNewYork, Manhattan’s most widely circulated newspaper, and as an editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication at the heart of New York City’s Wall Street investment community.

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