Sheltered at home like most of us during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs has spent the past two months working on a puzzle with moving parts.
Think it’s done one day? It changes the next. And the next, and the next.
It’s the Scarlet Knights’ 2020-21 budget for more than 600 student-athletes competing in 24 sports in the Big Ten Conference.
In recent years, putting it together has been a battle to toe the fiscal line while trying to be competitive in a Power Five conference.
All that changed this year with the coronavirus pandemic. The once-in-a lifetime disease has claimed close to 100,000 lives in the United States and more than 325,000 globally. It has hammered the economy, shut businesses and sports and created massive unemployment and hardship.
Money is tight and Hobbs has no idea how much he’ll have this year.
Last year, Rutgers passed a $4.6 billion budget in July for its campuses in New Jersey for the year ending June 30. The athletic department got roughly $100 million, one of the lowest sports budgets in the conference, about half spent by Ohio State and Michigan.
“There’s uncertainty in athletics,” Hobbs said in a virtual interview with The Associated Press last week. “There’s uncertainty across the university. I know you have to plan around that because if you can’t, you’re not able to move forward with some certainty. Once you have one, you’re going to have to make financial adjustments.”
The coming fiscal year is cloudy. The state, which provides 17% of the university budget, has seen its coffers drained fighting the virus that has claimed more than 10,000 lives in the state.
The Big Ten distribution to its 14 members has been reduced because the NCAA canceled its basketball tournament in mid-March. Rutgers, which joined the conference in 2014, won’t qualify for a full share until the 2021-22 academic year.
Another question is how many students return to school next year. Fewer students means less money.
Will fans be allowed at games once they resume? Football is a focus. Tickets sales, gate revenues, concessions and parking generate a ton of money for colleges.
While Hobbs wants to see fans at games, he understands the state and medical advisers will have the final say. Playing without fans does have benefits. The games will be televised.
“The conference distribution as a result of our media rights is the most significant part of our revenue,” he said. “And so that’s sort of why football folks are very focused on sort of a return to play under safe conditions in a safe environment, because it’s a significant driver of revenue.”
There probably are going to be shortfalls, and Hobbs said nothing is off the table in overcoming them. He has taken a 5% pay cut and football coach Greg Schiano, and basketball coaches Steve Pikiell and C. Vivian Stringer have had their annual salaries cut 10%.
No sports programs have been eliminated. There is the potential to match what Tulane did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and possibly suspend programs for a year or two.
While that might seem to be a simple way of balancing the budget, Hobbs warns it’s not that easy. He notes many sports, particularly the Olympic ones, have more student-athletes paying full tuition and board than receiving full or partial scholarships. More money is coming in than going out, he said.
“A lot of our teams are really ready for breakout years, just like Steve Pikiell this year,” Hobbs said of men’s basketball which was on the verge of its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991.
“So in some ways, the worst thing to do is make a permanent cut that would hamper our competitiveness long term. We are going to have to find a way to bridge this financial challenges coming up in the next year or two.”
Hobbs said there are ways to save money. Cutting down on travel expenses would help, starting with video conference calls.
With major airlines hurting, he said the league could save by working out charter deals with the airlines, shuttling one team and picking up another. Another option is mandating bus travel for trips of less than 300 or 400 miles, and scheduling more non-conference games with nearby opponents.
Rutgers takes buses to Maryland and Penn State.
While many are worried about bringing athletes back to schools safely, Hobbs views that as an opportunity for the university to monitor their health and guarantee they work out in clean environments.
It might help other students when they return to campus.
Hobbs also has been monitoring things globally with South Korea bringing back baseball and the Bundesliga in Germany starting soccer again. It’s good to know what works and what doesn’t.
Just as Sept. 11 changed everything for many in the United States, the pandemic has done that throughout the world. Wearing masks, social distancing, short supplies and wondering when a vaccine will be discovered have become the norm.
For now, Hobbs is trying to keep sports going at Rutgers at a time when a virus is taking so many lives.
“Sports is where we go to escape. We want to be able to bring folks back to that escape as quickly as we can. But I can’t imagine anything that we would face as humanity that will be more challenging than this,” he said of COVID-19.