SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah athletics department is set to lose approximately $50 million to $60 million or more on a $91 million yearly budget following the Pac-12’s decision to postpone fall sports Tuesday.
The decision is a costly one but necessary, according to Utah Athletics Director Mark Harlan, to ensure the safety of the athletes under his care amid a still uncertain coronavirus pandemic. But that doesn’t make the decision any easier to make cuts in the department.
"There is an economic impact of this, and certainly we're not surprised that we're in this position," Harlan said in a Zoom video call with media Wednesday afternoon. "It's something that was always a possibility, and as such, our team has been planning for this possible outcome. ... We understand that that is going to cause us to have to make some very difficult decisions as it relates to the operation of our department.
"We've been working cooperatively with the university leadership, certainly our conference has been reported as providing options that we will continue to explore," he added. "But we don't hide from the fact that it's going to be a great challenge for us going forward. ... But we know there's heavy decisions ahead. It's gonna affect a lot of people. But we're prepared to handle that in the best possible way."
Much of that revenue comes from the football program, which brings in the bulk of the department's funds due to large TV contracts and overall interest from fans. But the football program is one casualty of the Pac-12's decision to postpone sport competitions until at least Jan. 1, 2021.
The plan is to move football to a spring scenario, but the logistics of the move still has many hurdles to clear before that option becomes a reality. As it stands, the Big Ten is the only other Power Five conference to postpone its fall season, while many other conferences and divisions of the NCAA have already canceled. The ACC, Big 12 and SEC still plan to move forward with a season, with the Big 12 releasing its amended schedule Wednesday morning.
But there's no guarantee the remaining three Power Five conference will have a season either, which is why Harlan said there are still a lot of logistics to work out before any set plan can be made about a potential spring season, to say nothing of the problems that arise due to the NFL draft being in the spring and the necessary downtime needed for athletes' bodies to rest before another football season a few months later.
Of note, Harlan said football has to figure out what happens to the bowls, the College Football Playoff structure, TV contracts, and to wait and see what happens with the other conferences .
"Definitely not willing to shut it off at this point, very willing and open to look at it and avenues that might exist," Harlan said. "And that's the same for other sports — is the NCAA going to move the championships? That decision hasn't been made, we expect some more understanding of that next week. What does that do for them as well. How does it fit into the overall structure of all our other sports, which would be the conclusions of our winter teams and the start of our spring, facilities — how you fit everybody, so all of that stuff."
Harlan said there are also still many questions about eligibility for athletes and what missing a fall season means for them. The NCAA met Wednesday to discuss eligibility and myriad other topics related to COVID-19. The council recommended several items to its board and approved an emergency measure to provide relief to fall athletes if their season is cut short due to COVID-19 by extending their five-year period of eligibility and an additional season of competition if they participate in less than 50% of all games in a season.
"In this time of uncertainty, the council members are working to create additional flexibility for college athletes whose seasons have been negatively impacted by the pandemic,” council chair M. Grace Calhoun and athletics director at Pennsylvania said in a statement. "Every day things are changing in college sport, and we want to be as responsive as possible, with the best information, to help student-athletes and their families make important decisions for their future. The council worked hard today and will seek membership input before we make final recommendations to the board next week."
The NCAA board will meet again on Aug. 21 to review recommendations from the council and to decide on the future of fall championships.
"With the spring possibilities, obviously it could bring with it some more elements of how to figure that out, in terms of their eligibility, but that's somewhere down the line," Harlan said. "For now, though, we're trying to get that landed so that we know exactly where our kids will get, but I anticipated it will look just like the spring."
Regardless of the decision by the NCAA, all student-athletes will have their scholarships guaranteed throughout their school year.
And though uncertainty about the department and the future of fall sports remain, Harlan said progress continues on its largest and most costly project, the Rice-Eccles Stadium expansion. He said they're "full speed ahead" with the expansion project and will plan to move forward with tearing down the locker room area this fall since football won't be played in fall. Previously, the locker room area was expected to be torn down after the conclusion of the 2020 season.
"The team has done a fabulous job of selling all the seats — we're almost sold out for the 2021 season when we plan on opening — so we're marching forward with that project. We're in a good place."
A majority of the money for the expansion project was already raised, but the loss of revenue from the lack of a season will likely extend the impact to the department.