HUNTINGTON — As the coronavirus pandemic enters its second month of shutting down the collegiate sports world, there are still many unknowns as to when those sports may resume.
With that uncertainty comes a financial uncertainty for the future of universities who rely on athletics competition to help fund their athletic departments for the year, as well.
Over the course of the last week, several universities have announced cuts to their sponsored sports programs in anticipation of budget deficits incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Old Dominion University — a fellow member of Conference USA with Marshall — announced it would end its wrestling program while the University of Cincinnati — a former C-USA member who is now in the American Athletic Conference — announced that it was ending its men’s soccer program.
On Wednesday, Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick said that the university is not currently considering the dismissal of any of its sports programs.
“At this point, discontinuing any sport is not on the table,” Hamrick said. “However, as we look down the road in these uncertain times, no one can predict where we go or what we do.”
When asked whether that stance would change should the 2020 football season be limited or eliminated, Hamrick declined comment.
“That is all speculation and I’m not going to comment publicly on any speculation,” Hamrick said.
The potential for dismissal of sports programs is becoming a more pressing issue each day as financial situations start to become more clear and the fallout from the NCAA’s amended budget starts to take effect.
Last month, the NCAA amended its distribution to member schools from $600 million to $225 million due to the loss of revenue brought on by the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
While many Power 5 programs won’t feel as big a pinch from the amendment due to larger revenue bases, the Group of Five schools — teams in the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West and Sun Belt — feel that budget strain much more.
That’s why earlier this week, the commissioners of those conferences penned a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert, asking for temporary relief from financial aid requirements and average football attendance.
Many of the schools within the Group of Five are not self-sufficient, meaning they use subsidized monies from their respective states to help fund their programs.
The letter pointed out some of the anticipated losses in addition to the loss of money distributed by the NCAA.
“Among the financial challenges being faced include significant decreases in state appropriations, substantial losses in endowment value and a downturn in philanthropic activity,” the commissioners’ letter read.
Hamrick said the intent is not to seek the ability to eliminate programs; instead, it is to provide a framework for which to navigate during the trying times.
“It was not a mandate to do anything, other than to provide universities and athletic programs within their conferences the flexibility to make decisions for what’s in the best interest of their athletic programs,” Hamrick said. “What they are trying to do is provide flexibility for their schools that feel like they can’t meet those scholarship numbers.”
For Marshall, in particular, the NCAA’s response to the letter from the Group of Five commissioners could loom large.
Currently, Marshall is right on the threshold of NCAA Division I requirements in terms of sponsored sports and scholarship allotments to maintain D-I status.
Division I schools must offer a minimum of 200 athletic grants-in-aid per year or spend $4 million in grants-in-aid on athletes and provide 90 percent of permissible grants-in-aid in football over a two-year period.
NCAA rules also require Division I schools to sponsor a minimum of 16 varsity sports.
“We are currently at the minimum number of sports to be FBS — 16 — and we are just over the scholarship minimum that you have to be Division I,” Hamrick said.
On the surface, it seems like the commissioners’ letter is part of a contingency plan being worked on for the Group of Five schools in the case that the 2020 football season is not played due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hamrick, who is also on the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee, said that, as of now, the direction that he is following is as if there will be a 2020 football season.
“We’re planning everything right now as if we’re going to play football on Aug. 29,” Hamrick said. “No one has told us we’re not playing football on Aug. 29 at East Carolina. Do you have to put contingency plans in, in case it doesn’t happen? Absolutely, and we’re working on those.”