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Warde Manuel: Playing football could reduce Michigan athletics deficit by $20M

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

With the return of football to the Big Ten, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel said his projected hit to the athletic department budget, while still large, is slightly less than what he had forecast last month.

Manuel said on the “Conqu’ring Heroes” podcast with Jon Jansen that posted Tuesday afternoon that the Big Ten’s decision to reinstate the football season and play eight games with a plus-one divisional crossover matchup will help cushion the blow of revenue losses triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michigan opens the season at Minnesota on Saturday night then plays its first game at Michigan Stadium on Oct. 31 against Michigan State. Fans are not allowed to attend football games, which affects the home football gate, but having an abbreviated season will provide a pool of television money to be divided among conference schools.

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel

Last month before the Big Ten reversed course and reinstated the season because of the availability of daily rapid COVID-19 testing, Manuel projected a $100 million hit to the budget, roughly half of what the athletic department generates.

“We don’t know the final potential impact of playing less games, but based on our estimates, if we do have the ability to play the games this year and get through everything, our deficit would go from $100 million to about $80 million,” said Manuel, who last month had to lay off 21 members of the athletic department. “But it all depends on how everything goes, how it goes with basketball, all the things that really drive the revenue.”

Manuel credited the fan base for donating nearly $6 million of their preferred seat contributions.

More: UM students get stay-home order from county; football can proceed

“We are facing what many businesses and individuals are facing having to have a significantly reduced revenue stream,” Manuel said. “If that’s what we have to do because of the health and safety pieces of it, then I’m fine with it. I don’t want people to think we won’t be able to get through it, but we’re able to get through it because we have great fans, we have great donors who have supported us. We’ve had our season-ticket holders and donors (who) have donated almost $6 million in their preferred seating contributions back to the department this year. It’s been amazing.

“We’ve had an increase in the number of donors who have contributed to our champions fund this year to support our student-athletes and our department through these tough times. That helps us to mitigate long-term borrowing that we’re gonna need to support where we are.”

Like many programs around the Big Ten, Michigan is selling fan cutouts for home games to also generate some revenue. Manuel admitted he didn’t know what the cardboard cutouts were all about. During a Zoom meeting with department administrators, the idea was raised. Manuel described himself on the podcast as “old school” and thought it was odd.

“I’m saying, ‘Is there anybody else who thinks this is weird?’” Manuel said of his conversation during the meeting. “Not one person raised their hand, so I said, ‘OK, go with it.’ It’s been so well-received. I know the initial response from the first couple days is unbelievable excitement and people want to be part of it. What our staff heard from many of our fans is that they hadn’t missed a game or had been a season-ticket holder for 20, 30, 40, 10 years, however long, and they couldn’t envision themselves not being in Michigan Stadium. This was a way for them to have that feeling, to be a part of this season in Michigan Stadium.”

Here are other highlights from the podcast:

►On COVID testing and getting through the football season: “You can’t let your guard down. That’s one of the things I’ve heard from the NFL, I’ve heard from other ADs. Things are going well, you have to be even more diligent with your team and your staff because people start to feel we’re OK. Making sure people wear their mask properly, social distancing, that we don’t become lax in terms of how we manage the day-to-day. We have to be diligent and not let our guards down. We have to make sure we do that. You have to react. Once you know about an infection, once you start to contact trace, if you need to shut down practice or a game for health and safety, that’s what you do. We are committed to working and doing the things to try to play games, but we’re not going to play games if we get to the point we have a significant number or over the number that we’ve designated in terms of positives on a team to play. That’s any of our teams. Those things will happen, and you’ll have to adjust and move on and make sure you contain it by doing things the right way. It’s just being diligent every day is probably one thing that’s most important across the board, making sure everybody is doing the right thing around how they are handling the daily mitigation of this coronavirus.”

On how difficult it’s been to prepare for the football team to travel: “Very difficult and obviously brings in more complexities to it. My staff is planning and doing a great job in preparation and planning of how we’re handling those who will be in contact with our team, whether that’s how that will be handled on our charter flight to Minneapolis on Friday, how we will deal with the hotel, how the staff will interact, how our kids will interact, meals and the like. Our staff has learned from others who have already gone through this about how they’ve done their meals, their pregame meals, their postgame sandwiches and meals, how they’ve dealt with the buses and the different companies across the country. We have learned a lot from our colleagues across the country about how to proceed and the different things that have worked and mistakes that have been made. Because we’re starting later, we have the benefit of talking to our colleagues across the country who have gone through this already, and my staff has really done a good job of having those conversations and making the plans and adjustments necessary to keep everybody safe.”

On when other sports will resume: “On Nov. 25, men’s and women’s basketball have their first competition and Nov. 13 for men’s hockey. We’re working through how that will lay out and testing protocols for nonconference competition is one of the things the medical subcommittee is finalizing now so we can make sure everybody is healthy and safe. Our senior administrators have been working on from around the Big Ten on the other 20 sports that we have. The fall sports will start in the winter and our spring sports will start also in the winter but their championships aren’t until the spring. We’ll have 28 sports that are competing starting in January if everything goes well. Normally, we only have 22 sports that are competing because the seven fall sports normally are done by the middle-to-end of December. It’s going to be quite busy around our facilities and quite a task for all of us to really balance all the competition and all the practices that are going to be during that time period.”

achengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis