The Mountain West's decision to postpone fall sports until a potential spring season was not only an emotional and psychologically draining one for the Nevada Wolf Pack. It also will have a huge impact on the athletic department's finances.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the MW's decision Monday, Wolf Pack athletic director Doug Knuth said his department is bracing for a $10 million-plus deficit in fiscal year 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And that's the best-case scenario.
"Ball-parking numbers, we’re $10 million-plus no matter what happens," Knuth said during a Zoom press conference Thursday. "And if we don’t play anything – football, basketball or any sports this entire year – you can look at our budget and see what our revenue numbers are in the past and subtract all of those numbers. You can guess what that looks like. It’s not going to be good.”
The Wolf Pack's most recently available numbers are the 2019 fiscal year in which the department reported $43.6 million in revenue, although that wouldn't indicate a $43-plus million loss with no sports played in 2020-21 as the Wolf Pack would still accrue state, university and student fee money. But the larger point is clear. If there are no college sports this year, the financial impact would be devastating.
One reason colleges have tried to stage a 2020-21 athletic season is to generate some of that revenue, most notably from big-money events such as the NCAA Tournament, which canceled last March, and the College Football Playoffs.
"If all that goes away like the NCAA basketball tournament did last spring, it’s going to be a tough, tough deal for us, and frankly it’s almost an impossibility about how you balance the budget," Knuth said. "I’m not even sure it’s possible.”
Evaluating Nevada's fiscal year 2021 numbers is a "what if" game, Knuth said, because nobody knows whether playing football in the spring will happen. Knuth said more advances in COVID-19 testing and an effective vaccine would deliver big steps toward a spring season. But whether the MW, as well as the Pac-12, Big Ten and Mid-American Conference, play football this season is a complete unknown.
Knuth said the Wolf Pack will honor the scholarships for all of its athletes this season even if there aren't any sports played. The Wolf Pack also has tried to avoid layoffs or salary reductions for its staff.
"Even going back to last March when the writing was on the wall, we made a commitment to fund our student-athletes all of their financial aid," Knuth said. "We were committed to that as a top priority. We did not want to cut scholarships. We did not want to reduce sports. That was not going to be on the table. We talked all along to do our very, very best to maintain salaries. Financial aid was a priority. Jobs and salary were a priority because it impacted beyond our operations with families in the community. But everything else was going to be on the table. Everything else we do operationally was going to be on the table for how we reduce our spending."
Beyond the financial impact, Knuth said it was difficult to tell the athletes in his fall sports (football, volleyball, soccer, cross country) their seasons were being postponed and potentially not played at all.
“The announcement to postpone fall sports was sort of a gut punch for us," Knuth said. "We understand the decision, the logic behind it and obviously support the decision and believe it’s the right decision, but it’s hard. It’s not unlike what happened last spring when we pulled baseball and softball and tennis and golf and track out of competition unexpectedly with those student-athletes right in the middle of their season. Cutting short their season was hard. The same thing happened this week when we had to talk to volleyball, soccer, cross country and football and essentially tell them all their hard work and preparation they did this summer to get ready for a great season was going to be cut short or postponed to the spring hopefully. That’s a gut punch. That hurts.”
Knuth said there's absolutely a path toward playing fall sports this spring but much of it is outside the control of the Wolf Pack. It's really up to the scientific world as well as the discipline of communities across the nation to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“This might be stating the obvious, but nothing happens without significant improvements or some kind of evolution in testing, a rapid-response testing, some kind of a test we can get it back in minutes rather than days or some kind of a massive decline in spread, something has to happen in that level or a vaccine, a widely available effective vaccine has to happen," Knuth said. "Without those kind of things happening, logistically we can play football but health-wise and safety-wise we won’t be able to.”
Knuth said the uncertainty of the long-term effects of having COVID-19 was a driving force in the MW's decision to not play sports this fall. While he did not have a direct vote (the Board of Directors is made up of the university presidents), Knuth said Nevada supported the move and he believes the final vote was unanimous, although there was more ardent debate on both sides in the weeks leading up to Monday's final call.
Knuth thanked the Wolf Pack athletes who returned to campus in June – players from football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball – in doing "an incredible job adhering to and following the safety protocols that our team doctors and our medical professionals put in place. They really took it seriously, they followed it close and did everything we asked of them to play this fall.” While Nevada has not released any results from its COVID-19 testing (athletes were tested once a week), the Wolf Pack has said their protocols limited positive cases.
The Wolf Pack athletes and coaches want to play this season, Knuth said, but will only be given the go-ahead if the MW Board of Directors believe competition can be conducted safely. MW commissioner Craig Thompson said Thursday the conference is targeting an on-time start for winter sports, including the other big-revenue sport, men's basketball, but whether it will be safe to play basketball in November when the season is supposed to start is a complete unknown.
“There’s still so much uncertainty and so many questions, and in some ways we’re still trying to figure out what next steps are and still trying to figure out what the future holds," Knuth said. "We have some incredibly talented athletes and their coaches are asking some really good questions for things really none of us have the answers for yet. We’re trying to figure out what the future holds, and it’s been a challenge. It’s been really hard.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story said Nevada's $43.6 million in revenue in fiscal year 2019 was inflated due to an accounting change in how the Wolf Pack announced ticket sales. That number was in fact not inflated, although the 2018 fiscal year ticket sales number was deflated due to an accounting method change from cash accounting to accrual accounting.
Knuth's full 37-minute press conference is below.