'Never-say-never mode': MSU AD Beekman warns of possible cuts to athletics due to pandemic

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

The belt-tightening had already begun in the Michigan State athletic department in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cancelation of fall sports means things are getting mighty lean in East Lansing, as well as other college programs around the Big Ten and the country.

In a meeting with reporters on Thursday, athletic director Bill Beekman said his department will be looking at every possible angle to cutting costs for the time being while not ruling out shutting down some sports.

Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman.

“I think we have to be in a ‘never-say-never mode,’” Beekman said. “I think there's nothing that we're going to immediately take off the table. Everything has to be an option as we explore how to close this gap as best we possibly can.”

The gap has grown exponentially with the postponement of fall sports to, possibly, the spring. And there was no bigger part of that equation than football, which at Michigan State in the 2018-19 season generated nearly $80 million in revenue, accounting for almost 58% of the Spartans’ total revenue of just more than $140 million.

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With no guarantees on if there will be a season in the spring and what that season might look like, the assumption is that Michigan State and the other 13 programs in the Big Ten will suddenly be operating with a large hole in their budget.

Beekman has said in the past that cutting a program would be a last resort, even just keeping a team from playing for one season. However, there are only two sports at MSU that are self-sustaining – football and men’s basketball. Those sports would have the best chance at still having a season while the future for Michigan State’s other 23 varsity sports is far less certain.

“If we have the ability to play sports that generate revenue, we absolutely will,” Beekman said. “I'm very hopeful that we'll play football in the spring that we'll play basketball. I think relative to basketball, there are open questions as to when the season will start, but I am hopeful and optimistic that we will find a path forward.

“As it relates to the other sports, I think there are some open questions as to how and when we'll be able to play them from a health, safety and wellness perspective, and then certainly there are financial implications of playing those sports and we haven't made any final decisions. In some cases, we’re in a little bit of a wait and see mode.”

Instead of focus simply on the viability of entire programs, though, Beekman has been having his staff focus on how they can shrink this year’s budget. It’s a different way of looking at it, Beekman says, and not just about trying to trim what they’ve done in the past.

“We’re looking very hard as a starting point at our operational costs and reducing them as absolutely low as we possibly can,” Beekman said. “As I've shared with our team, this isn't a year to try and figure out how we shave 10% off of this or 5% off of that. This is a year where we start with zero and try and spend as little as we possibly can.

“If there's something we can defer maintenance on for a year, we defer it. If there's a subscription we maybe don't quite need so bad, we don't buy it. If there's a way to travel less expensively, we do it. So you start with zero and work up, not the other way around.”

It’s just the latest step Beekman has been taking to try and lessen the financial impact of a lost fall season. In mid-July, Beekman announced a series of salary cuts that members of the athletic department would be taking beginning Sept. 1 and lasting 12 months.

Football coach Mel Tucker and men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo will be taking 7% cuts while Beekman’s salary will be cut 10%. Izzo’s base salary is $3.7 million and his total compensation package is $4.2 million for 2020, according to the USA Today coaches’ salary database. Tucker’s contract as MSU’s new football coach includes a base salary of $3.8 million in a compensation package worth $5.5 million annually, according to MSU. Beekman’s base salary is $750,000.

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Other MSU athletic department employees will see these reductions during the same 12-month period based on their annual salary, starting for 7% cuts to anyone who makes more than $500,000 down to 2% for those making $100,000-$149,000.

“Back in the spring, I commented that if we didn't play football this fall, it would be an existential moment for college athletics,” Beekman said. “That's certainly where we're at now. So, we're working very hard to find and develop solutions for the situation we're in. I think every athletic department that is self-sufficient, that's part of a Power Five program, is really in a similar situation.”

Beekman covered a wide range of topics in his nearly 45 minutes with the media.

He touched on his belief that a basketball season in some sort of bubble is viable, praised the job Tucker has done despite numerous obstacles in his way since being hired in February, emphasized the importance of student-athletes having a voice while admitting that some issues relating to eligibility and scholarship limits are still being determined.

He also defended the ultimate decision the Big Ten made to postpone its season while acknowledging other conferences might opt to play.

“I share the real disappointments of our coaches and our student-athletes that they will be forced to wait a while and delay doing what they love to do, and in many cases, what they've trained most of their lives to do,” Beekman said. “But I think it's possible to be disappointed and to still understand the logic of the decision based on medical advice that the Big Ten received from its infectious disease working group and its sports medicine working group, that there were really just too many unknowns to proceed with the season. So in that context, I think the Presidents made a wise decision that we postpone play.”


Twitter: @mattcharboneau