On a recent Monday, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green and NU athletic director Bill Moos were both on campus and had a normal meeting scheduled.
Instead of getting together face-to-face, though, they held a Zoom session, each man looking at the other through a computer from his campus office.
It’s the kind of digital migration so many Americans are becoming accustomed to in the churn of the coronavirus pandemic, which has upended the lives of many people, the economy and, more generally, most senses of normalcy.
The Nebraska Athletic Department certainly isn’t immune to the on-the-fly change. Many student-athletes' lives changed suddenly when winter championships and spring seasons were canceled last month, fall student-athletes saw spring practices canceled and many headed home without knowing when they might be back. Staffers, mostly, have been working from home for weeks.
In the bigger picture, though, NU administrators say that the department is well-positioned to handle the financial burdens already being felt and the unknown that obfuscates the coming months. And though there are scenarios that would devastate any university’s athletics budget — most prominently, a canceled or radically altered football season — Moos says Nebraska’s current financial picture is one of envy.
“We’re sitting in a lot better place than the majority of college athletic programs, there’s no question,” the third-year NU athletic director told the Journal Star.
As with many schools in the Big Ten, the Nebraska football program is a money printing machine.
In the 2019 fiscal year, completed June 30, Nebraska athletics reported more than $136.2 million in revenues (about $122.4 million in sport-specific revenues) in its annual financial report to the NCAA, more than any year except for 2018. Of that revenue, nearly 71% ($96.1 million) was generated by the football program.
In fact, the football program turned $59 million in profit, among the highest marks in the country. Men’s basketball checked in at $5.9 million in profits, while John Cook’s volleyball program more than pays for itself and beach volleyball.
“Financially, football is the engine that pulls the train,” Moos said.
Even though the other 20 varsity sports at NU combined to lose $21.7 million and the athletic department showed $29.1 million in nonsports net loss (athletic department salaries, operations, etc.), NU still came out ahead by more than $12 million for the year. Of that profit, $10.6 million was turned over to the academic side at UNL, double the 2018 mark.
That, of course, is largely because of football. As payouts from the Big Ten have soared — more than $54 million total last year — so, too, have profits. Even though Nebraska is spending more now on recruiting than ever before and spent twice as much on food and nutrition in fiscal 2019 than any year prior, 2019 was still easily the most profitable year in football program history.
In just five years, NU’s football program has almost doubled its profitability from $30.9 million in fiscal 2015 thanks to steady ticket sales and concessions numbers on top of consistently increasing Big Ten payouts and a $16 million powerhouse in royalties, licensing, advertising and sponsorship.
While every Big Ten school — along with those in the SEC and, to a lesser degree, the other Power Five conferences — pulls in big money from football, Nebraska still feels better positioned than some for the coming uncertainty.
NU athletics is not only free of relying on any general university funding, but it is also completely debt free and has been since fiscal 2015. NU chief financial officer John Jentz told the Journal Star that it is the only Power Five school that can make that claim.
According to the Knight Commission, a nonprofit group that studies college athletics, the average Big Ten school had about $12 million in annual debt service in fiscal 2018, the most recent numbers in its database.
On top of that, some schools in the country rely heavily on donor contributions in their operating budgets. A recent Sports Illustrated story said more than 40% of Texas A&M’s reported revenue came from donations among an oil-and-gas-heavy donor base. That industry, like many, has been deeply shaken over the past month.
There is no denying that donors are a critical element at NU, too. One doesn’t have to look further than the $100 million fundraising project underway to build a new $155 million football training complex, myriad other facilities projects that are recently completed or coming in the near future, the Husker Air Fleet program and many other initiatives, to understand that.
However, Nebraska in fiscal 2019 reported just $6.5 million in contribution revenue for its operational budget, which represents 4.8% of revenue. That’s down from an average of $22.5 million for 2015-17, or 20.2% of revenue reported those three years, which is more in line with the average Power Five school.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that donors are contributing less. The NCAA financial document requires only that donations to be used in the current fiscal year are disclosed.
“To be able to compete at the highest level, which is ultimately what we want to do in addition to preparing these young men and women for life after Nebraska, you can’t do that unless we have the great fan support that we have,” NU senior deputy athletic director for external relations Garrett Klassy said. “Quite honestly, during these times, you always know it, but you realize that our business model is based on peoples’ passion and peoples’ disposable income.
“We’re in a very fortunate spot that we have great fans that have great passion and they want to consume our events in person. It makes all the difference in the world. We can’t do what we do without the fans and what they give back and contribute to our entity.”
At Nebraska, donations are made to the NU Foundation and earmarked from there. Given the amount used for operations in 2019 was relatively small and has been consistently shrinking in recent years, it's clear Nebraska is able to cover its operations in other ways, freeing fundraising efforts to go toward projects such as the football facility, the air fleet and others.
The foundation also is where NU keeps a reserve fund, which Moos told the Journal Star is "healthy." School officials would not give an estimate as to the amount, because the foundation is not subject to open records requests. One point of comparison: Last week Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said his school’s reserve fund is between $10.2 and $10.3 million.
Moos, though, did say the combination of his department’s financial strength and the reserve fund will help Nebraska through the turbulent times. While many around the country, including Iowa State and the Pac-12 offices, are planning salary reductions for employees — particularly high-earning ones — and considering furloughs, Moos said that’s not in the current discussion for the Huskers.
“We may have to be faced with that, but that’s not the plan as we speak,” Moos said. “We have the luxury of having those reserves to make sure that people are safe and comfortable.”
No matter how healthy an athletic department is, the numbers above should make clear what has been said often around the country in recent weeks: Nobody can avoid critical problems if the 2020 football season is canceled or radically altered.
Nebraska football in 2019 recorded $30.2 million in ticket revenue and $5.4 million in concessions and merchandise. Those two budget lines alone account for $5 million per home game, and that’s before any conference television revenues or school licensing and sponsorship comes into play.
Even losing a nonconference slate — NU is set to host Central Michigan, South Dakota State and Cincinnati in September — could easily be a $15-20 million problem in campus-generated revenue alone. Playing in an empty stadium, too, would have a dramatic financial impact.
“We’re going to be comfortable, I really feel, through some of the crises we’re feeling right now in fiscal year 2020, but if we lose a football season altogether, it’s going to be quite concerning,” Moos said.
At Nebraska, this is where most of the questions are. It will sting a bit to lose out on the majority of a payout from the NCAA basketball tournament — the school received $2.3 million in NCAA payout for men’s basketball in fiscal 2019, but the NCAA announced it's paying out less than half its projected amount this year after the basketball tournament was canceled — but none of Nebraska’s spring sports are money-makers.
Klassy called the loss of a spring season “devastating” for student-athletes, and certainly that is the case.
“We talk about that quite frequently in our senior staff meetings,” he said. “No. 1, we need to be concerned for our student-athletes because that’s who it impacted the most. I know our fans are disappointed that our fans can’t come out to games this spring and we feel bad for them as well, but it’s even worse for these young men and women.”
From a revenue point of view, though, spring sports cost more money than they make and NU was able to get refunds on some — Klassy didn’t have an exact figure — of its travel-related expenses through its partner, Anthony Travel.
That further cushions the blow for the remainder of the current fiscal year. The next one is the big question mark.
Moos said he thinks the Power Five commissioners, College Football Playoff officials and others will find a way to play the season someway, somehow. It’s clear why that push will be made with such gusto: rabid fan support, sure, but primarily because that’s the financial engine that makes the whole thing work.
“I do feel that we need to be prepared for an abbreviated football season or maybe a late start,” Moos said. “I feel very comfortable that the various conferences and postseason partners and the CFP, they’re having these conversations in the event that’s the way we have to go.
“I’m very optimistic that we can get back to business as usual and, if not, we’ll still have a means to create revenue through the sport of football.”
Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.