Coronavirus response | Financial hit for UI athletics less severe than predicted | Coronavirus


CHAMPAIGN — The projected financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Illinois’ Division of Intercollegiate Athletics was viewed as high as possibly $40 million a year ago.

That, however, was more “worst-case scenario” thinking last summer, with the prospect of no college sports in 2020-21.

The reality turned out differently.

After a few fits and starts with football, the Big Ten ultimately played its full slate of sports. Those games — and the revenue generated by the conference’s media rights — changed the calculus on how big a financial hit athletic departments might take.

At Illinois? The anticipated net loss for a fiscal year in the middle of a global pandemic will fall between $12 million and $18 million. The next 30 days, athletic director Josh Whitman said, could see that improve marginally as the fiscal year concludes.

“Given what we’ve gone through and certainly compared to our early projections, which were sometimes in excess of $40 million, we feel really good about that number,” Whitman said Wednesday. “It compares favorably to many of our peer institutions across the country.

“We are working with campus to, of course, finalize that number and determine a long-term financial recovery plan.”

Illinois’ estimated net loss includes a loss of approximately $22 million in revenue. The biggest piece of that — nearly $14 million worth — came in lost gate receipts and related income.

Two years ago, 550,000 fans turned out for 145 home athletic events at Illinois.

The 2020-21 athletic year saw Illinois host 111 home events and approximately 4,000 fans.

“None of whom paid to be there,” Whitman noted. “They were all family members or guests who were on pass lists from coaches and student-athletes.”

Additional losses came via distribution from the Big Ten by approximately $10 million. A reduction in premium seating meant more than $4 million in losses and more than $2 million more in sponsorships, licensing and annual fund revenues.

Then there were costs associated with the pandemic. A significant portion of that came from the 105,000 COVID-19 tests for Tier I individuals within the DIA. Scholarships for “super seniors” in spring sports meant an extra $400,000, and that number will increase this coming fiscal year to as much as $1.5 million for scholarships for “super senior” fall and winter sport athletes.

The extra scholarships, though, will be fully funded by donors.

“There are a lot of schools who have chosen not to offer those opportunities to return,” Whitman said. “We didn’t feel like that was the right thing to do. We felt like we had a commitment to our student-athletes, and we wanted them to be able to have the experience that they expected here at our university.

“We made the decision to incur that expense, but we were able to offset that with the generosity of several donors.”

Cost-saving measures within the DIA turned a net loss of approximately $22 million into a somewhat more manageable number between $12 million and $18 million.

Temporarily transferring 40 staff members to other departments around campus that needed reinforcements saved the DIA more than $400,000. A voluntary salary reduction for employees making more than $80,000 per year is estimated to have saved nearly $1.5 million.

“I’m very proud to say that of 87 eligible staff members, we had 86 raise their hand and volunteer to participate in that plan,” Whitman said.

Choosing not to fill vacant staff positions — a total that now sits at about 30 — saved a couple million dollars as well, and 12 DIA staff members took advantage of a financially-incentivized voluntary separation from the university.An additional $3 million was saved from playing in front of empty stadiums and arenas in addition to not having to pay guarantees to nonconference opponents. Further changes to internal policies related to travel, food and other areas saved more than $2 million more.

The next step for Whitman and the DIA: finalizing the fiscal year numbers and figuring out the recovery plan with the university at large.

“We’re pushing for a longer repayment period there, knowing that the less we need to pay each other allows us to continue with more normal operations,” Whitman said. “The more aggressive we have to be in that repayment, the more challenging it will be in terms of the operational impact.”

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