Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Amid Uncertainty, Nebraska Hopes Sports Don’t Hit ‘Critical Mass’

September 21, 2020

Nebraska is in a unique position. While universities nationally have started to cut programs due to postponed seasons and reduced revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Huskers are not having to do the same.

It’s not an easy position to be in either way. Nebraska is facing a major loss of revenue in 2020, just like everyone else. According to its annual financial report, the Nebraska football program brought in a profit of nearly $60 million for fiscal 2019. Basketball brought in just over $6 million and volleyball over $210,000. Even with the Huskers’ other 19 Olympics sports drawing losses, Nebraska still had an excess of $12 million in 2019.

Coach Scott Frost said in August that a canceled football season could mean a loss of  $80 million to $120 million to the Nebaska athletic department. It’s even more dire for the Lincoln community and small businesses that rely on game day traffic.

However, Nebraska athletes can take some comfort. While Athletic Director Bill Moos had to make difficult decisions to eliminate and furlough a number of positions in the athletic department, the university hasn’t had to cut any programs.

“We are in so much better position than almost all of our colleagues because we don’t have any debt,” UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green told Hail Varsity. “We have reserves that are quite healthy in athletics. We don’t want to use up those reserves. We want to make sure we preserve the future as well.

“But we can support our student-athletes moving forward. We’ve had to trim—Bill had hard decisions to make and tough things to do with personnel—but we are in so much of a better position because we haven’t spent money we didn’t have and many institutions have spent money that they didn’t have. That’s why you’re seeing universities make the decisions to cut sports because of all that debt.”

In early July, Stanford made the announcement that it would cut 11 varsity sports programs. Iowa made the decision to cut four of its varsity sports programs in late August, becoming the first Big Ten school to make such a cut. Minnesota followed on Thursday, cutting three programs.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the Big Ten’s decision to postpone fall 2020-21 sports has greatly increased the financial concerns,” Minnesota said in a statement. “Our athletic department is now facing a projected loss of revenue of approximately $75 million just this fiscal year. This is a significant deficit and one that will have an impact for years to come.”

While devastating for each individual university, the impact of these decisions will extend far beyond just those at each school. Take men’s gymnastics. It will be cut by both Iowa and Minnesota following the 2020-21 school year. William & Mary also decided to cut its program, alongside six other varsity sports. Prior to the decision, only 23 schools sponsored men’s gymnastics for DI competition. With three already eliminated and the possibility for others, what could it mean for Nebraska’s men’s gymnastics program?

“What I hope doesn’t happen—this is another part of that dilemma that we’re already seeing it begin to play out and it concerns me a lot, I’ll just be really honest about that—is the change of the landscape nationally and what we do,” Green said. “Iowa canceling some Olympic sports last week. Stanford having done that earlier with a larger number of sports. They’re the early ones. There will be more that we’re going to see play out that way. I don’t think we’re in that position here, but a lot of institutions are in that position. What’s that landscape on the other side going to look like and what’s that going to mean for many of these sports? I know it’s not our subject here, but gymnastics, what are you going to do in men’s gymnastics when you’re down to X number of teams nationally that are competing and/or you’re down below a critical mass that you can’t actually have an NCAA championship?

“Those were some of the things that we don’t know what the other side of this may look like. Who knows?”

The question on how many teams are needed for an NCAA championship to take place is an interesting one. The NCAA canceled fall championships for 2020, saying not enough schools were participating. NCAA President Mark Emmert said that the Board of Governors established that without “at least half of the schools playing a sport, you can’t play a legitimate championship.”

But what about the number needed to even move forward? That’s a little less clear.

“You already were down to just over 20 participating,” Green said about men’s gymnastics. “When you start whittling that away and you get down to a critical mass, what’s the critical mass for you not to be a club sport? Those are weighty. They’re really weighty things that are out there that we don’t have the answers to in a lot of cases on how this is going to look.”

The College Gymnastics Association is hoping to help prevent schools from finding out what that number is that shuts it all down. The association has announced the creation of the Stronger Together Campaign, a call to action for the collegiate gymnastics community to “come together to protect the opportunities for future generations of gymnasts.” More information is to come on the campaign, but it’s one the association hopes will help keep the sport around for another 100 years.

In the meantime, the College Gymnastics Association is also looking for ways the sport can reduce their “financial footprints in our athletic departments.”

“Creative solutions of cost reductions and fund-raising efforts need to ramp up in an accelerated fashion to save the remaining programs,” the CGA said in a statement. “Discussions are ongoing with various NCAA legislative initiatives and a collegiate gymnastics sustainability committee is in its final stages of being assembled, spearheaded by the USOPC.

“We have come to a crossroads in college athletics and our hope is that we can mobilize the entire gymnastics community to provide a unified message followed by a unified effort to fight the challenges we are facing.”

For now, Nebraska has no intention of eliminating any of its varsity sports. That’s a small silver lining through all of the uncertainty, but it’s not a guarantee as other universities face tough decisions. Green doesn’t know what that point of critical mass looks like for the NCAA and various programs, but he’s hopeful universities won’t have to find out.

“I’ve been looking for a silver lining all these months,” Green said. “A silver lining for us is that we have lived the Nebraska way, where we don’t spend money we don’t have and we have no debt. There may be one other institution that I know of that’s close to us but we have no debt, and thank goodness we hadn’t started down that road.

“There is some silver lining there that we’ll delay a year, but we’ll be back a year from now in better shape as a result.”

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