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State's mid-major budgets growing grim, and that's before a resolution on football

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Back in November, during Western Michigan's regular meeting of all the head coaches, athletic director Kathy Beauregard told her team that a $2.5-million budget reduction for athletics was coming, and soon.

At the end of the meeting, one high-profile coach looked at her and said:

"Are we still expected to win?"

Central Michigan is going ahead with its $32-million Chippewa Champions Center but the project will be delayed.

Beauregard didn't disclose that the question was asked, but she did confirm it after a reporter inquired.

"And," said Beareguard, "it's a fair question."

That was nearly six months ago, and since, the financial picture at all the state's colleges and universities has grown increasingly grim, amid the COVID-19 pandemic that not only has shut down sports throughout the country until who knows when, but also is threatening to derail schools' uber-critical enrollment figures.

Beauregard is almost certain the original $2.5-million reduction will go up, while at Central Michigan, athletics is bracing for a reduction of more than 15 percent. Eastern Michigan and Oakland University also are preparing for significant cuts, though no numbers have yet been made public.

It's all a huge unknown among the entire collegiate sports landscape, as all game-day revenues have gone kaput, and there's an increasing belief that college football — the golden egg, especially for the Power Five, but also to a significant extent for the Group of Five — will be played this fall in empty stadiums, as doctors warn that the coronavirus threat isn't going away anytime soon, and large gatherings might be best to wait until there's a vaccine. That's not likely until early 2021, and that's optimistic.

"We're all on pins and needles," said Scott Wetherbee, athletic director at Eastern Michigan.

Commissioners for five Group of Five, or mid-major, conferences sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert on April 10, co-signed by heads of the Mid-American Conference, American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mountain West Conference and Sun Belt Conference, pleading with Emmert to ease the NCAA's membership rules, temporarily — "a blanket waiver for relief will provide institutions the ability to make prudent and necessary decisions for the financial well-being of the institution."

The NCAA is expected to discuss that letter at length in a meeting Friday, though no action is expected until next week at the earliest.

Among the big asks from the five conferences is the easing of the rule that calls for NCAA institutions to sponsor at minimum 14 varsity sports. Few colleges have cut sports, so far, though there have been a couple notable instances — including men's soccer at Cincinnati and wrestling at Old Dominion, plus six teams at Division II St. Edward's University in Austin, Texas, where Warren De La Salle alumnus Nico Ciavaglia is trying to save his men's golf program.

No Michigan schools have cut programs.

"We're not there," said Michael Alford, athletic director at Central Michigan. "Yet."

Among the mid-majors in Michigan, Eastern Michigan sponsors 17 teams, including women's lacrosse, which was to start in 2021; Oakland sponsors 17, including the new esports program; Central Michigan has 16; and Western Michigan and Detroit Mercy each have 15.

None of the state's athletic directors are planning to cut any sports teams at this moment, but all are leaving the door open — with the exception of Eastern Michigan.

Eastern Michigan cut four programs in early 2018, early in Wetherbee's tenure, though the women's tennis team was eventually restored via court order, and lacrosse replaced softball. So the net loss was two, but public outcry was huge.

"I have no desire to ever do that again," Wetherbee said. "I've had enough of that."

Schools that aren't open to cutting sports teams — at least permanently; the waiver request to the NCAA calls for a temporary reduction, if necessary, with the teams eventually coming back — may have to get creative to cook the books.

For now, all state school's are in a hiring freeze, which has had an impact on athletics. At Western Michigan, the freeze led to Beauregard hiring assistant men's basketball coach Clayton Bates to replace Steve Hawkins, the longtime head coach who was let go before the coronavirus pandemic really put a chokehold on sports, and at a significant cost savings from Hawkins. At Eastern Michigan, a lacrosse coach was supposed to be hired soon, but that's not happening now.

One way schools, particularly the cash-strapped ones, could start saving is on recruiting trips, as they're finding out now much of the legwork can be done remotely, via Zoom. Another way is on scaling back construction projects in the future, though at Central Michigan, it's going ahead with its $32-million Chippewa Champions Center. The project will be delayed, but eventually completed, since it's already been funded.

Creativity will be needed from all corners, and athletic directors will have to be prepared for anything. Alford said he has at least eight budget scenarios in play, while Oakland athletic director Steve Waterfield said he has at least three.

"We'll pick the one that makes the most sense," Waterfield said. "And if the university needs us to do something or adjust it, we'll do it."

Other than Michigan and Michigan State, the state's colleges and universities significantly subsidize the athletic department — to the tune of many millions of dollars per academic year, depending on the school. For instance, Eastern Michigan's athletic department gets $12.1 million a year from the school. Central Michigan gets about $21 million. 

That money isn't likely to be there next year or potentially for several years after that, given public colleges and universities are preparing for massive hits in their appropriations from the state. There's an almost-certain decrease in enrollment looming forthe majority of Michigan colleges.

Michigan, as many states will, is likely to lose billions in tax revenues amid the COVID-19 pandemic, given all the businesses that have been forced to shut down, and all the employees out of work. The fiscal year starts July 1, and a decision from the state's appropriations committee is expected in the coming two months.

All Division I NCAA member institutions already have been told will lose millions each in this year's distribution money, from the cancellation of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, about $600 million total.

"Reductions," said Beauregard, "are going to be very real."

And that comment comes without even a known resolution on football, of which the NCAA isn't close to close to making a decision.

Many ideas are being floated around, from the most likely, which is playing in front of no fans, to even moving football to the spring, in the hopes that fans would be allowed then. But colleges also know simply allowing fans isn't the end game; there's a real concern that many fans will be wary of large gatherings, and stay home, regardless if they're allowed to attend.

Most athletic directors believe a loss of football fans would be the first huge blow to the Power Five athletic departments amid the COVID-19 crisis, but still a significant problem for the Group of Five schools, which don't rely as much on general ticket sales as it does huge donor contributions and hospitality boxes.

One place that's not a problem is at Oakland, which doesn't have football — a sore subject usually, but certainly not during these times.

"I'm extremely happy" we don't have football, Waterfield said, with a laugh. "I love football, it's great.

"But, boy, having football would add a whole new layer."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984