By Nancy Zimpher and Jonathan Mariner

Published in MarketWatch, August 11, 2020.

While millions of fans are lamenting the looming disappearance of college sports this fall, the coronavirus pandemic is also exposing financial fault lines and a broken governance model that may trigger an opportunity to irrevocably transform big-dollar college athletic programs.

COVID-19 has cast a harsh spotlight on some painful truths about high-revenue college football in particular—notably, that the billions generated by lucrative media contracts and conference-owned networks have warped the mission and incentives in this educational not-for-profit model, resulting in years of overspending on coaching salaries and gilded sports facilities. The absence of significant reserve funds to cover these costs, due to a “spend what we make” mentality, is evident in the painstaking and   splintered decision-making process on whether to play football in the fall and keep the TV money flowing.

These big-revenue programs are part of the NCAA’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) — 130 football teams in all, whose athletics department budgets ranged from $16 million to $207 million in 2018. This 10-conference subdivision includes the only college football teams left vying to play this fall that dwindles by the day, with news Tuesday that both the Big Ten and Pac-12 have canceled the fall season.

The disjointed decision-making, with emergency meetings of each conference’s governing board of university presidents, may leave the viability of fall football in limbo for days or weeks. That muddle stands in contrast to the Division I Football Championship Subdivision, and all of Division II and III, whose 600-plus colleges and universities have already cancelled their fall championships, including football.

The Big Ten and Pac-12, along with the ACC, Big 12 and SEC, are members of the TV-revenue rich “Power 5” conferences that ultimately control the decisions for FBS college football.

Adding to the turmoil, Power 5 football players are split about playing this fall. Hundreds of players from the Pac-12 and Big 10 are demanding that their conferences meet their safety and other concerns, while others have started their own campaign to support playing this fall.

Black athletes account for more than half of football players in the Power 5 conferences, and hospitalization rates from COVID-19 are roughly five times higher among Black Americans than White Americans. Given the disparate impact of the pandemic and emerging questions about the potential long-term health complications of COVID-19, athletes are raising critical questions about the priority of racial equity, health and safety.

The lack of unifying leadership in making decisions about a fall season underscores college football’s broken and fragmented governance system. Unlike the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament, the FBS’s 10 conferences manage their lucrative postseason championship—the College Football Playoff—independent of the NCAA.

Last spring, the NCAA cancelled March Madness in one board meeting. By contrast, the presidents and commissioners of each of the Power 5 conferences are making the call on fall football on their own.

Outside of the Power 5 conferences, the vast majority of 1,200 non-profit educational institutions in the NCAA’s three divisions do not view athletics programs as money-makers. Colleges and universities fund athletics as enhancements to student life, much like providing opportunities for students to participate in dance, theater, debate, or other development and civic engagement activities. At the more than 400 schools in Division III, one out of every six students participates in varsity sports.

While the absence of fall sports at most NCAA institutions will not result in significant revenue shortfalls in ticket sales or media contracts, the impact may be seen in reduced tuition revenues for many small colleges that depend on athletics as an enrollment tool for recruiting students.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Power 5 football programs have created a financial structure that is “too big to fail.” The pandemic should propel a radically reorganized way of doing business.

Twisted incentives in FBS football

A crude sense of the financial apocalypse that could result from cancelling football for all of the Power 5 conferences (as opposed to postponing football to the spring) can be gleaned from institutionally-reported data collected for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, an independent group on which we serve that has a legacy of influencing NCAA policy change.

Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, used our database and other sources to project that the Power 5 would collectively lose more than $4 billion in football revenues from a mass cancellation, with each of its 65 programs losing an average of $62 million.

Looking at fixed expenses, our database shows that 54 of the public Power 5 institutions (data for private institutions is not available) hold $7.4 billion in total athletics debt for which they pay a combined $578 million in annual debt service.

These same institutions also have contracts with highly paid coaches that, in many cases, don’t have “force majeure” clauses allowing for reductions during a crisis, such as a pandemic. In 2018, these same 54 institutions spent more than $2.4 billion in coaching, administrative and staff salaries.

The other half of the FBS conferences outside the Power 5 have programs that face different financial realities. Two funding sources under severe strain during the pandemic—student fees and institutional support—make up 56 percent of these programs’ budgets.

Adding to their financial woes is the cancellation of early season non-conference road games against Power 5 football teams. In past seasons, these games have provided guaranteed million-dollar payouts, often accounting for 10 percent of the budgeted revenues for the entire athletics department of these lower-resourced programs.

With important meetings to come, it is not yet clear if any FBS football games will be played this fall or spring, but what is clear is a new model for college sports should emerge.

For too long, Division I and its FBS football model have been shaped by distorted non-educational incentives to simply win games and boost television market share. At this moment of crisis, Division I college presidents have an opportunity to demonstrate bold leadership. A post-pandemic model for college sports should address excessive spending and promote fiscal sanity, while creating incentives and new governance structures that do more to prioritize college athletes’ education, health, safety and success.

Nancy Zimpher is Chancellor Emeritus for the State University of New York and Jonathan Mariner is the former executive VP and CFO of Major League Baseball. Both are board members of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.