Jun 17, 2021

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After the Josh Whitman media roundtable yesterday, I walked the exterior construction fence at Ubben and took some pictures. 100% felt like I was at my old job. Time to tell the contractor I don't think that vault is in the right place. (It is. It always is.)

This won't be a discussion of the specifics of what Whitman said. I put a breakdown of that stuff on the Slack channel, and I'm sure there have been dozens of other articles written about that. I figured I'd just write from the hip here. I won't talk about what he said; instead, I'll talk about what he said.

During his presentation, an hour-long recap of the last year, he pointed out something that was going to be obvious to anyone: here he is talking about budget cuts due to the pandemic... and surrounding the Bielfeldt Administration Building you could see four projects currently under construction: an expansion of the Ubben basketball facility, the new softball facility, the new baseball facility, and an expansion of the golf indoor facility. The obvious question he wanted to point out: why build new facilities while cuts are being made everywhere else?

His answer: these projects began years ago. The money was raised for the donation portion of the funding plan, the plans were drawn up, and while construction might have been somewhat delayed by the pandemic, they were still projects already in motion. Money was donated for the facilities, and the facilities needed to be built with that money.

But it did paint a picture of college athletics in 2021. And his discussion touched on how the landscape is rapidly changing. Name, Image, and Likeness laws are being passed and July 1 is the start date. Cases pertaining to amateurism are being argued in front of the Supreme Court. As we all just witnessed, the money-printing machine of college athletics just dealt with it's first full-scale breakdown as a global pandemic came along and shut everything down.

And that's not a shot at college athletics. I love that darned money-printing machine. I'm saying that the last 10 years have been incredibly good for college sports - TV revenues skyrocketing because nobody watches commercials anymore except during live sporting events - but then this pandemic came along and altered the landscape.

Whitman covered all of that, talking about how the DIA, at the end of the fiscal year on June 30th, will be somewhere between $12 and $18 million in the red. Last summer, with the possibility that no sports would be played in 2020/21, they were staring down the barrel of a possible $40 million deficit. Eventually, sports returned, especially the two revenue sports, and that was enough to fulfill parts of TV contracts. He noted that the shared revenue from the Big Ten will be around $10 million less than the previous year (looking that up, it appears the Big Ten distribution in 2019 was $52.1 million per school, and the estimate for 2021 was $55 million, so this year's distribution must be coming in around $45 million). He mentioned the discussion last summer that the number could be zero for 2020/21, so yeah, ending up only $12 to $18 million in the hole probably feels pretty good.

Will that number immediately rebound in 2021/22? Possibly. The conference share should get back to the expected $55 million or so, and ticket revenues - Whitman noted that the expected ticket revenue for 2020/21 was $14 million and that number ended up being zero - should get back to normal. But there are other factors at play here. And he addressed those in an answer to one of the final questions asked.

He was asked about non-revenue sports. The example used was men's gymnastics, the viability of programs like that in the long term, and how all of these changes might affect smaller programs in "smaller" sports (there are only 14 Division I men's gymnastics programs remaining). His answer was fairly general, pointing to all of the changes currently happening in college athletics, specifically the NCAA vs. Alston case which the Supreme Court will rule on very soon. The outcome of that case, the possibility of a federal NIL law - all of these items have to be resolved before anyone can predict the future for non-revenue sports.

That was one of the final questions, and when I left I started taking some pictures of the Ubben renovation next door. And then I walked down and took some pictures of Demirjian Park, the new "track on one side, soccer on the other side" facility that was just completed. And then I took some photos of the construction happening at the golf facility. And then I had all evening to think about {waves hands in circular motion with palms down} everything.

Here's where my brain lands. Please note that the rest of this article is no longer "Whitman's thoughts from yesterday". We've now reached the "Robert's thoughts today" portion.

Let's start with generalities. College athletics works like this: Football and basketball make a lot of money. The schools then use that money to pay for 20 athletic teams. Other schools have additional revenue sports (UConn Women's Basketball makes money, Minnesota Men's Hockey makes money, LSU Baseball makes money) but for the most part, the income comes from football and men's basketball. Mostly football.

Athletic departments aren't in the business of "making" money, though. It's not like Ohio State makes a lot of money from football and then the Ohio State President gets a bonus check for $13 million. For the most part - again, speaking in generalities - they have to zero everything out at the end of the year. Income matches revenue. So at a place like Ohio State, you have to find somewhere to lose the tens of millions of dollars the football program brings in. Let's see, uh, we can expand the football facility again, and then we can hire four more Associate Athletic Directors, and then we can push the recruiting budget to $19 million...

I'm being facetious to make my point, but the reason Ohio State has an Athletic Director (Gene Smith), 10 Senior Associate AD's, and 12 Associate AD's (and all of that is before you get to the Assistant Athletic Directors) is because the athletic departments grow as the budgets grow. When someone tells me that schools are "raking in the money", well, yes, but then they're just spending it on a new tennis facility and three more Associate AD's.

It's much more complicated than that. And I'm being a bit unfair - the expansion of an athletic department means more assistant athletic directors are required. But I'm saying it like that so we can get to this:

If college football and college basketball move in a more semi-pro direction - a large portion of the money that comes in goes directly to the football and basketball athletes - then it probably means the end of non-revenue sports as we know them. Perhaps a better way to frame the Ohio State discussion above is to say that Ohio State football pays for all of the other sports. If it costs around $2 million for Ohio State Men's Soccer per year - travel costs, scholarship costs, facility upkeep, etc. - almost all of that $2 million comes from Ohio State 49, Clemson 28. And the same goes for every other sport (and facility) on campus. Schools aren't "making" money. They'd argue they're using the windfall to provide incredible practice facilities and state-of-the-art sports medicine facilities for (fully staffed with multiple trainers) for every sport on campus.

I don't really have an opinion on the debate. I can see all sides. Yes, Justin Fields made millions and millions of dollars for Ohio State and his "paycheck" was simply a free education for two years (plus one year at Georgia). A large portion of that money should probably go to Justin Fields. But if it does, it means there's probably not enough money for the volleyball team to fly to Minneapolis to take on Minnesota. Maybe they can bus, and maybe they can just play Kent State instead, but the system right now works pretty well because there's money for hundreds of student athletes to have that athletic experience in college, not just the football and basketball players. But then again, Ohio State made $210,000,000 in 2019 just from football and basketball, so we're at the point where nearly a quarter of a billion dollars means the term "amateur athlete" brings a hearty LOL.

Years ago, colleges "sponsored" the athletic teams. It didn't start as some big "we need to find a way to spend this $55 million check from Big Ten football media rights" kind of thing. Sponsoring athletic teams was part of the overall experience that universities provided. So maybe if the football and basketball players are paid, universities would find other ways to fund gymnastics and wrestling. They've done it before. Of course, when they did it before, it was a van driving the tennis team to the farthest away game at Illinois-Wesleyan in Bloomington. And the players had to provide their own racquets. Isn't this system much better?

That's where we stand in 2021, I think. And the windows behind Josh Whitman at Bielfeldt provided a view of the landscape. Baseball, softball, basketball, and golf facilities being expanded, much of it with money donated specifically for the construction of those facilities, but some from Ohio State 49, Clemson 28. A pandemic leaving most all athletic departments in the red. A Supreme Court case which could flip amateurism on its head. NIL laws which could shift some of the money away from Ohio State and towards Justin Fields.

And a Landscape Architect finally getting to write about landscape.


GilThorpe on June 17, 2021 @ 05:03 PM

I gotta tell you, while a big part of my overall thinking is to let market forces work this out, college and prep sports are sacred to me and Im deadly afraid these proposed college money rules changes will dramatically change the game, and then it will transfer to 16 and 17 year olds for basketball (what would stop it ?)

Then we basically will be left with the elite prep stars playing only on elite travelling teams and average joe schmoe's playing high school pick up games in front of 200 people.

I sound like Abe Simpson, but why cant things just stay the same as they are?

Sean on June 18, 2021 @ 07:40 AM

A nice line at the end.

Joe Edge on June 18, 2021 @ 02:34 PM

What he really said was: College athletics, and in particular college football and basketball is BIG business (repeat: B1G BU$INE$$), and as the CEO of this wholly owned subsidiary, we're managing our inflows and outflows with meticulous care, under some very difficult circumstances, in a time of uncertainty and change...

Alaskan Illini on June 21, 2021 @ 02:34 PM

You just described my thoughts to a "T" Robert - we are witnessing the fall of the NCAA sports writ large. Without the dollars from the the two revenue sports (they won't be college athletes any more, they will be professional athletes getting paid to play), there is zero money to pay for non-rev athletics. Personally, I look at universities in Europe and they don't have athletic programs even remotely similar to ours, everything is club sports. As a club sport participant back in the early '80's, it was certainly fun for the athletes who played for the love of the sport and representing their universities, but college sports will certainly not be the enjoyable spectacle it is today, and that makes me just a little bit sad.

IMO, the greed of the revenue athletes spells the death knell for all college sports . . . and 95% of those athletes likely will not earn from their playing days what they would have received in educational benefits from a 4 year scholarship had the system stayed as designed.

In fact, the NCAA vs Alston was just announced this morning, and the NCAA lost. So long NCAA sports - it was fun while it lasted.

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