For Georgia State, the sports money crunch is a squeeze

Georgia State Panthers wide receiver Cornelius McCoy (83) scores a touchdown against Furman Paladins during the second half of a college football game at Georgia State Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Atlanta.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Georgia State Panthers wide receiver Cornelius McCoy (83) scores a touchdown against Furman Paladins during the second half of a college football game at Georgia State Stadium, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Atlanta.

Georgia and Georgia State are both FBS programs. Both beat Tennessee last year. There the similarities end. Georgia State’s athletic budget is $30 million. For the fiscal year that ends June 30, Georgia’s was more than five times that.

Every athletic department has been affected by the cancellations in the wake of COVID-19, but the figurative rain hasn’t and won’t fall on each program’s roof with the same force. Georgia is among the healthiest Power Five schools. Georgia State is a member of the Sun Belt, which is among the Group of Five conferences.

The Group of Five has taken what Georgia State athletic director Charlie Cobb calls the "preemptive" measure of asking the NCAA for "temporary relief" of up to four years "from several regulatory requirements." These include scholarship minimums, home-attendance minimums and scheduling minimums. As is, you can't be an FBS school if you fail to meet any of the above.

Said Cobb: “The (Group of Five) commissioners got together several weeks ago and said, ‘OK, there’s going to be things down the road we need to look into as a result of the financial disparity between the Power Five schools and the Group of Five schools.’ The thought was to get ahead of the curve because the NCAA is a big animal. The legislative process can be very cumbersome. With some of the decisions we may or may not have to make on our campuses, getting into fiscal year 2021 based on what’s happening with the virus, people need the flexibility to know that (what’s) going to be there, frankly.”

This comes in a spring that saw the NCAA cancel everything on March 12, its men's basketball tournament included. The scrubbing of that billion-dollar enterprise cost member schools an aggregate $375 million in revenue.

Said Cobb: “For Sun Belt schools, from the NCAA and our conference, we budget about $2.6 million (in revenue). We probably thought we were going to get about $2.7. We’re going to end up getting a little over $2 million – about a $600,000 hit for us.”

If you’re Georgia, $600K is roughly half what your offensive coordinator makes. If you’re Georgia State, it’s 2% of your sports budget.

Said Georgia AD Greg McGarity: “For those (smaller programs) that are so dependent on NCAA revenue, which is obviously being cut back, or those that depend on student fees to run their program … I just think it’s going to be very difficult to attempt to balance the books if you don’t have all of those resources accessible.”

Said Cobb: “I don’t know the finances, but I know math enough to know that most of the SEC schools have a year’s worth of revenue as a reserve. Greg’s been criticized for years for being too fiscally conservative, and now he’s being praised.”

Then: “I think we’re going to play college football somehow some way; the when, where and how – it’s speculation in the middle of April to try to figure out what’s going to happen in September and October. I think the Big Ten is right behind the SEC (in reserve funds), but the Big 12 and the Pac-12 and some of the ACC schools – are their reserves that substantial that, if a year’s revenue from football is not there, is it enough to sustain what’s going on?”

As for what might happen if Georgia State plays a football season behind locked gates, Cobb called it “a worst-case scenario” and said: “We’re probably in the eight-to-10 percent range of revenues around football. The bigger challenge for us is that we’re a new program. Ten years into it, we’re constantly in this battle of fan support and student engagement. To try to play without fans in the stands, it stunts that growth in ways we probably can’t even fathom from a notoriety and visibility and marketing standpoint.”

The NCAA Division I council is set to meet in two weeks. Cobb believes the Group of Five’s petition will be discussed. As for action: “I don’t expect any response,” he said, in part because uncertainty cuts across the entire membership.

Cobb: “Everybody’s committed to wanting to honor scholarships and the contracts for coaches and staff and for people to stay employed. What does the rest of it look like? Can we get more regional in scheduling?”

Then: “For college presidents, their focus is on getting their institutions up and running, but fairly quickly the pivot around athletics will be, ‘Wow, we’re spending a lot of money, and it really doesn’t make sense for us not to play School X or School Y down the road, where our teams can get on a bus and turn it into a day trip, (as opposed to) getting on airplanes and taking two or three days to go play, just out of arrogance that we think our school is better than the school right down the street from us.”

The fear in collegiate circles is that the Group of Five's supplications will lead to the lopping of sports. To qualify for FBS status, a program must field 16 teams. Already this month, Cincinnati has dropped soccer and Old Dominion wresting. Both are Group of Five schools. Neither Cobb nor McGarity is certain the decisions were based on the coronavirus shutdown – "Those were already in the works," Cobb said – but the double hit sent a chill across the landscape.

McGarity: “I would hate to see short-term decisions impact the long-term effect on programs. We know this is something that’s going to be short-lived. It’s not going to be with us for years. I’m assuming it won’t.”

For the record, Cobb said Georgia State has no plans to drop a sport. “That’s a conversation for way down the road. There’s no reason to be speculative. Everybody expects to get out of this. In a span of a few weeks, everything has hit the brakes, and there’s this chasm. It’s going to take some time to dig back out of it. I don’t think anyone expects it to be a six-month or a one-year return.”

On Wednesday, Big-12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told Vice President Mike Pence that conferences had no interest in playing football if campuses remain closed. That same day, Dr. Anthony Fauci was quoted as saying sports could resume if the athletes were quarantined in one city and the games played without fans, though it's easier – not to say easy – to imagine that happening with pros than collegians.

McGarity: “There’s so much confusion out there. Everybody’s consuming different information. Who do you believe? Who gives the all-clear horn? What happens if Gavin Newsom in California says, ‘Our schools aren’t playing,’ and Brian Kemp says, ‘We’re good’?”

Cobb: “This is uncharted territory. I’m working on five scenarios with three different options, so really 15 different scenarios. It’s a fascinating exercise – but one we really wish we weren’t having to do.”