For the past few years, UConn’s athletic department budget deficit has continued to grow as the old Big East payouts dried up. After posting deficits over $40 million for each of the past two years, UConn was once again in the red for the fiscal year 2020 (July 2019-June 2020), posting a $43.5 million deficit according to reports from Hearst Media and The Hartford Courant.
While the number is eye-popping, and the largest amount the school has posted to date, it isn't unexpected. Even before COVID-19 entered the picture, UConn expected the 2020 report to be worse before starting to improve in 2021. COVID-19 likely throws that timeline out of the window, but the university has taken multiple steps to reduce the deficit.
UConn decided to cut four sports (women’s rowing, men’s cross country, men’s swimming and diving, and men’s tennis) shortly after the onset of COVID-19, but that decision doesn't factor into this report since those moves take effect after the 2020-21 academic year. UConn’s American Athletic Conference exit fee payment isn’t accounted for either, according to a statement from the athletic department to the Courant. In 2019, this payment was achieved by forfeiting their annual conference payout, but it is unclear if UConn did this again following the end of the 2019-20 academic year.
During the 2020 fiscal year, UConn saw operating expenses increase in all three major sports as the school wrapped up its final year in the American. Football increased from $16.6 million to $17.2 million. Men’s basketball increased from $9.9 million to $11.2 million, and women’s basketball increased by $200,000 to $8.2 million in 2020. Part of the increase in expenses for football and basketball can be attributed to contractual obligations for the coaching staff, which saw a $1.2 million increase in football and a $1.4 million increase in men’s basketball compared to 2019. While the athletic department instituted salary reductions (including for athletic director David Benedict) this summer, basketball and football coaches were not eligible for salary reductions due to their membership in the American Association of University Professors.
The school also did not receive any NCAA or AAC tournament payouts as a result of COVID-19 cancellations — likely the biggest impact from COVID in this report. And, as always, UConn continues to rely heavily on student fees to fund the department, with $6.5 million of the school’s $43 million (15.1 percent) budget being paid by students’ tuition fees.
It’s also important to remember this number is likely inflated based on the way UConn counts scholarships towards its budget and for payments (like for the use of the XL Center) that truly only amounts to switching from one part of the state of Connecticut to the other. The Hartford Courant’s Alex Putterman has addressed this issue in the past.
Despite the increased deficit, a global pandemic, and money owed to the American, it wasn't all bad for UConn athletics financially in 2020. The men’s and women's basketball teams both saw tremendous increases in ticket sales due to the move to the Big East, posting increases of roughly 30 and 20 percent respectively. UConn’s private fundraising arm, The UConn Foundation, raised over $80 million in fiscal year 2020, with $26.4 million of that total designated specifically for use by the athletic department. Due to the foundation being a separate entity from the athletic department, that massive chunk of change was not included in this report.
Overall, the deficit news is a tough blow for a department severely impacted by the pandemic and trying to cut costs sooner rather than later. While the news isn't necessarily surprising, 2021’s report should paint a much different picture given all of the changes UConn has made.
The athletic department is unlikely to see significant savings from cutting four sports right away, as they promised to honor all scholarships for the impacted athletes through their college careers. They’ll also continue to pay the American for leaving and may incur additional costs for all of the necessary safety procedures such as testing to try and safely play games as COVID-19 rages on.
On the flip side, they may realize some slight cost savings from inactivity due to COVID, such as the extended dead period in recruiting that led to $2 million less in travel and other travel expenses this year. It’s also likely to see a major reduction in expenses from football, who opted out of the 2020 season. Both basketball programs are also playing fewer games and a much more regional schedule due to the Big East move. Both teams also look poised to make the NCAA tournament, and should be able to cash in on the conference’s tournament shares, which should be considerably more substantial than what the American earned.
COVID-19’s effects will probably loom larger in next year’s report, but we can continue to monitor for signs of progress given the changes UConn has made since this budget situation came to light a few years ago.