David Coburn deserves credit for not doing what most other college athletics directors have done in recent weeks and blame all of his athletics department’s problems on the coronavirus pandemic.
When he announced late Friday afternoon that Florida State would be slashing 20 percent from its operating budget for the coming year, the Seminoles’ athletics director acknowledged there were other contributing factors to the current predicament.
He pointed out that FSU also has been hit hard by, “declines in football season ticket sales and donations to the annual fund of Seminole Boosters,” and he also mentioned the money Florida State spent to buy out former head coach Willie Taggart’s contract following his dismal two-year run.
That’s an important distinction, and I’m glad he made it. But while I said Coburn deserves credit for that statement, I didn’t say full credit.
What Coburn didn’t mention in his press release Friday is that overall spending in FSU’s athletics department — and across the entire college football industry — has escalated at an unprecedented and irresponsible rate over the last decade, and that is an equally significant contributor to these programs’ current plight.
According to the USA Today’s college finances database, FSU spent $150 million on athletics in 2019. That is almost exactly double what the Seminoles spent on their athletics budget less than a decade ago in 2010.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I know we’ve heard so much through the years about the “arms race” in college sports that we kind of tune out the particulars, but let that one marinate. In 2010, FSU spent just over $75 million in athletics. By 2019, it was spending over $150 million.
And before anyone gets the wrong idea, the Seminoles are not the exception; they are closer to the rule.
The University of Georgia spent less than $90 million on sports in 2010; the Bulldogs spent $174 million last year.
Clemson’s expenses more than doubled during that time frame — from around $60 million to nearly $134 million.
Texas A&M’s expenditures skyrocketed from less than $90 million to over $212 million.
The list goes on and on.
And in almost all of theses cases, the biggest jumps in expenses have come in two areas — salaries and facilities. Coaches’ individual salaries have gone through the roof, the sizes of their support staffs have ballooned out of control, and every school is seemingly determined to one-up its rivals by building shiny new facilities.
According to the USA Today database, FSU spent about $23 million on staff salaries in 2010. That number soared to $49 million by 2018 before settling back to $44 million last year.
The Seminoles spent about $11 million on facilities-related projects in 2010. That total had doubled to $23 million by 2017 and more than tripled to $35 million in 2019. The story is similar on most campuses.
What in the world have we been doing? And as a reminder, much of this excess comes at a time when college football attendance is actually declining year over year.
Is it any wonder that FSU’s athletics department showed a $13 million loss last year and over $3 million the year before?
I get the idea of competition. And I understand that all schools are battling for every possible advantage. If Clemson builds a fancy football complex and wins a couple of national championships, then everyone else wants one, too.
But has the overall quality of the sport really improved at a level commensurate to these expenses? Not even close. It’s insanity.
While no one could have predicted that a pandemic would bring much of the world to a standstill and rock the entire global economy, it’s also fair to say that these athletics departments should have been far more conservative with their spending when they had the chance. They have raised ticket prices and pushed donors for greater contributions again and again, and it’s never enough.
To his credit, long before the pandemic hit, Coburn had been intent on trying to rein in the Seminoles’ expenses. He has devoted most of the past two years to looking for ways to cut costs and streamline operations. That hasn’t made him very popular with some folks in the athletics department, but it has been extremely necessary.
And now, with the reality setting in that revenues are going to be incredibly soft this coming year — even if football is played — Coburn announced on Friday that he has eliminated 25 positions in the athletics department and reduced staff salaries across the board. The goal is to save more than $20 million to prepare for expected losses in ticket sales, sponsorships, advertising buys, donations and other areas.
As drastic as those measures might sound, the reality is they likely are only the beginning. If football seasons are condensed to eight or nine games (which they might be) and crowds are limited greatly by social distancing (which they will), the revenue shortfalls will only grow — as will the lists of layoffs and other cutbacks.
Florida State has been able to avoid reducing its number of sports programs so far, and I’m sure that is the desired goal. But we can only wonder how long the financial losses will have to pile up before the Seminoles follow the lead of Stanford and other schools that are slashing their Olympic sports programs.
One thing is certain: If college football is not played this fall, the entire landscape of collegiate athletics will look different in the future. Some smaller departments could collapse entirely. Several sports programs will be scrapped on every campus. It will be a time of reckoning that none of us have ever seen in the sports world.
That’s why these next few weeks will be so important.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced late last week that they will be playing conference-only schedules. There is speculation that the other Power 5 leagues — the ACC, SEC and Big 12 — will end up following suit. And that may happen.
That approach is seen as a way to gain control of each school’s schedules — given the expectation that some games might need to be postponed or rescheduled — and also to ensure that COVID-19 testing protocols are uniform among all participants.
While there is merit to that plan, I’m fairly certain that several ACC and SEC schools would like to play more games if possible. We know, for example, there is a desire in both conferences to maintain the rivalries between FSU-Florida, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Clemson-South Carolina and Louisville-Kentucky. And we’re sure that both leagues would love to play closer to 12 games if at all possible.
The more times they play, the more times they’re on TV, the more money they can take in from their television partners and sponsors … the less they have to cut from their budgets.
So while some conferences have been quick to decide on a plan, there’s a good chance the ACC and SEC (and perhaps the Big 12) are going to take every bit of these next couple of weeks. They’re going to examine this puzzle from every conceivable angle to give themselves the best chance of having a season — and the best path to recouping as much of their losses as possible.
“If we don’t have a college football season,” one FSU source told me this weekend, “it won’t be for a lack of trying.”
Will it happen? Will the number of COVID-19 cases drop to a level to where college and state leaders will sign off on games being played? Will the testing and safety protocols be enough to satisfy players’ concerned parents? And even if the season gets started, can the teams control the spread of the virus well enough to actually finish the season?
It’s hard to be overly optimistic.
All we on the outside can do right now is hope for the best. And also hope that the people running these athletics departments will take a more responsible fiscal approach in the future.
Contact managing editor Ira Schoffel at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @IraSchoffel on Twitter.