Coronavirus not taking a financial bite out of college athletic departments - for now

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / UTC's Maurice Commander (4) moves the ball along the perimiter. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs hosted the Mercer University Bears in men's basketball at McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga, Tenn. on Saturday, February 22, 2020.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / UTC's Maurice Commander (4) moves the ball along the perimiter. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs hosted the Mercer University Bears in men's basketball at McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga, Tenn. on Saturday, February 22, 2020.

The suspending of college athletics throughout the country as a result of coronavirus concerns does have a financial silver lining.

After all, this isn't October.

Football is the driving force that helps support most Olympic sports at NCAA Division I universities, and the grand hope is that the uncertainties of this COVID-19 pandemic will be in the rearview mirror by Labor Day weekend. That doesn't lessen the sting for spring-sports student-athletes who are unable to practice and compete right now, but the timing of this could have been much worse.

"If anything, this saves us money," University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletic director Mark Wharton said last Friday. "The bus trips and hotel rooms and the meals don't exist anymore, but we were hoping to build momentum in several of our sports."

UTC has an annual athletic budget of roughly $18 million, according to Mocs senior associate athletic director Jay Blackman, while the annual budget at an athletic behemoth such as the University of Florida is roughly $141 million. Wharton isn't trying to sound flippant when discussing this hiatus from a monetary stance, because Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin has been explaining the same situation in Gainesville.

Even with Florida's baseball team ranked No. 1 nationally.

"Candidly, the revenue that we would generate from our spring sports is welcome and is not a significant number," Stricklin said last Friday in a news conference. "We're going to work with our season-ticket holders and ticket holders in general for these sports to refund through our ticket office between now and April 15th. If that gets extended, we will do the same, but that's not a significant number right now."

Wharton said UTC will be refunding some tickets in softball, the only ticketed sport left for the Mocs in this school year, with the others being football, men's basketball, women's basketball, wrestling and volleyball.

UTC won 20 games this season in men's basketball, a sharp improvement in the third year under Lamont Paris, who inherited a disastrous roster and went 22-43 his first two seasons. The Mocs were a basket away from playing East Tennessee State in the Southern Conference championship game, but a dramatic 72-70 semifinal loss to Wofford prevented that from happening.

The Mocs were out of the picture for the NCAA and NIT tournaments, but Wharton said UTC was being courted by the 16-team College Basketball Invitational and the 26-team College Insider Tournament events.

"We were going to get an invitation to both, and we were excited about extending the season," Wharton said. "I left it with Lamont in Asheville to survey the team whether they wanted to do it or not. I think the way we lost coupled with the excitement of where we're going made it something to strongly consider, but the CBI pulled the plug before we could make a firm decision and the CIT shortly thereafter.

"I thought it would have been great for our community and another building block for our program, but we'll still be touted top three in our league next year."

It was the same thought with the UTC women, who regrouped from an abysmal 1-13 start to compile a 10-4 league record that resulted in a share of the program's 22nd SoCon title. The second season under Katie Burrows contained a surprising setback against Mercer in the league tournament quarterfinals, but the women's NIT extended UTC an invitation.

Like the men in the CBI or CIT, the women likely would have lost money by playing in the WNIT, but Wharton believes investing in those tournaments that don't provide payouts would have been worthwhile.

"Our women's basketball program had postseason play taken from two seniors, NaKeia Burks and Lakelyn Bouldin, and that would have been a special way for them to go out," Wharton said. "Two weeks before the men's season ended, we put out the opportunity for our fans to put deposits down on the postseason to give us an idea what we could expect in the arena. Usually with the CIT and the CBI, you have high expectations that you're going to get your 3,000 in there, but that doesn't always pan out.

"The year before Shaka Smart took VCU to the Final Four, they played in the CBI and won it that year, but they averaged less than 1,000, so expectations don't always meet the reality."

Wharton's bigger financial concern is down the road.

When Wofford whipped Seton Hall 84-68 to advance to the round of 32 in last year's NCAA tournament, the triumph earned the Southern Conference roughly $40,000, of which UTC received a share. ETSU had the same potential in this year's tournament - winning two NCAA tourney games can net a league closer to $100,000 - but last week's cancellation of the 68-team extravaganza has eliminated that potential revenue stream.

"Schools at our level receive a disbursement from the NCAA, and it's the revenues off of their three money makers - March Madness, the CFP and now college wrestling," Wharton said. "You've had one of those that's actually happened. They've come out and said that the disbursements won't change, but will it change in year two or year three?

"Those are the concerns I have long-term for our program."

Which makes Wharton's fundraising challenges in the months ahead as important as at any point since his hiring in August 2017.

"We have a case for support, because of where we are and the need," he said. "It could be a lot like 2007 and 2008, when it was hard and we didn't know where the world was going. I got to Penn State right after the (Jerry Sandusky) scandal, and there was the crisis of it being like SMU and disbanding the program.

"I learned a great deal from that, and they've had a lot of success in a very short time since then."

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.

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