Why mid- and low-major college basketball programs are in big trouble without buy games

Montana Grizzlies men’s basketball coach Travis DeCuire stayed close to his phone last week. The Grizzlies’ seventh-year coach was busy trying to salvage his Division I program’s nonconference schedule one week after the NCAA approved a Nov. 25 start date that was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In most years, the 49-year-old DeCuire would be asking opposing coaches and administrators the typical questions about the potential nonconference matchups that anchor his schedule. How much are you willing to pay? Commercial or chartered flight? How many hotel rooms for the program?

The pandemic has changed those conversations, and DeCuire’s exchanges last week had a different tone. He wanted to know if schools were frequently testing players for COVID-19. What are the rates in your community? Can you promise that my team won’t have to run through multiple airports to get to your school?

“I want to know that they’re testing and the results are accurate,” he said. “I want to know that they’re negative before they get on the bus or the plane, if they come to play us.”

When Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of men’s basketball, announced that the season would commence two weeks after its original start date, the sport’s Power 5 programs — with the assistance of their ample budgets — began devising ideas about bubbles and regional matchups that aim to secure the health and safety of participants by limiting exposure.

For DeCuire and other mid-major coaches throughout the country, the road to the 2020-21 season isn’t that simple. The financial pipeline that will allow major programs to plow forward and play games isn’t accessible to non-Power 5 programs. There are more schools like Montana than like Duke in the Division I landscape of 350-plus college basketball programs.

Per the Knight Commission’s College Athletics Financial Information Database, Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) schools, a group of more than 100 schools that includes Montana and its peers in the Big Sky, generated $1.381 billion in revenue for 2018. The SEC alone generated $1.89 billion in the same year.

Montana officials project a $5 million shortfall to the school’s overall $23.3 million athletic budget, one of the top mid-major coffers in the country. Montana generates about $8.6 million in revenue from football in a typical year. With the football season delayed — and uncertain to return due to local restrictions — all financial projections are volatile, placing a more significant burden on the results of the phone calls DeCuire made last week as he attempted to guarantee games for his program.

“Like a lot of mid-majors, we run thin,” said Ryan Martin, the school’s senior associate athletic director and athletic department chief financial officer. “There is not a lot of fat. Five million dollars just doesn’t appear.”

It’s a giant puzzle for the folks at the University of Montana, and they’re searching for the right pieces. In normal times, DeCuire might get an offer of $75,000 to $95,000 to play a Pac-12 school. But the pandemic has altered the offers. Some schools, DeCuire said, have proposed significantly lower fees and demanded COVID-19 language in contracts that would reduce a visitor’s payouts to 50% if attendance for the games is limited to 25% capacity or less because of local restrictions on crowds.

The buy games for Montana and schools in its position in the Division I hierarchy are essential. With the cash, the school can pay other programs to visit remote Missoula, which is a seven-hour drive from Seattle and 12 hours from Denver. Home game ticket revenue for men’s basketball ($500,000) and women’s basketball ($250,000) is significant but could be conspicuously absent this season.

The first $90,000 the program receives for buy games goes to the university, and the remaining cash is used to “incentivize” the coaching staff via bonuses and additional compensation. That’s why the coming days and weeks are so critical for the Grizzlies and other programs like them.

“Like a lot of mid-majors, we run thin. There is not a lot of fat. Five million dollars just doesn’t appear.”

Ryan Martin, University of Montana senior associate AD and CFO

“We rely on buy game money in the athletic department as a whole,” Martin said. “We subsidize salaries for basketball coaches.”

Montana is one of multiple athletic programs below the Power 5 level seeking resolutions to financial challenges without the benefit of a nine-figure budget.

Supporters at UC Riverside, a Big West program with a $23.2 million budget, recently started the #KeepUCRAthletics hashtag after “elimination” of the entire department was listed as a consideration at a budgetary meeting last month.

Buffalo, a Mid-American Conference football school with a $46 million budget, has started a “Make it PossiBULL” fundraising drive that aims to generate $1 million to address additional costs prompted by COVID-19.

Officials at Hawaii, which boasts a $48.3 million budget, hope to solve a projected $9.3 million deficit.

East Carolina, an American Athletic Conference program that operates on a $60 million budget, recently cut four sports (men’s and women’s swimming and diving and men’s and women’s tennis) following projections of a $4.9 million deficit.

Now programs such as these will have to consider expenses for a unique season that will demand frequent testing.

Montana has tested men’s basketball players six to eight times over the past two months, per DeCuire, who said he has to rely on his relationships with other programs and coaches to trust their claims about testing and protocol on their campuses when he schedules games. He has an advantage on his campus, where students have access to rapid tests that offer same-day results. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock recently authorized $20 million in local funds to help Montana’s state schools with COVID-19 challenges. That will allow students to receive free testing — but it includes only symptomatic students. Because of capacity challenges, testing isn’t required for Montana students upon their return to campus.

Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill said the subject represents the primary obstacle for his league right now.

“Testing, that’s a big challenge for us,” he said. “That’s why the type of test, the availability of it, the cost of it and all of that matters. How can we set this up where schools can successfully set this up? Another issue is that healthy 18-to-22-year-olds aren’t real high on the priority list [for testing]. Once we feel good about that, then we can focus on our student-athletes.”

DeCuire is worried that the costs attached to testing and the access to reputable testing methods could disrupt the season for some programs.

“It’s very much concerning because it also plays a role in who we can play and who we can’t play,” he said. “I don’t know that everyone in the country is going to be able to fund it.”

New guidelines released Friday by the NCAA offer guidance. The Core Principles of Resocialization of Collegiate Basketball recommend testing coaches, players and officials at least three times per week during the season. The guidelines encourage physical distancing in travel, with the assistance and availability of a “private car, van, chartered bus or chartered plane.” The introduction of more cost-effective testing could alleviate the financial concerns for non-Power 5 schools; however, they must decide how to handle those costs for nonconference matchups, and the guidelines on how to handle active cases on the road could create more challenges for a school in Montana’s position.

“Schools should consider management strategies for student-athletes and other essential basketball personnel who travel for competition and become symptomatic after departure,” the guidelines say. “Traveling teams should consider confirming, ahead of time, whether host schools have adequate on-site testing capabilities to address symptomatic athletes from either team and adequate health care resources to properly isolate and care for anyone who tests positive or is symptomatic. The traveling team also should consider, ahead of time, necessary arrangements for proper return transport of infected, isolated and quarantined student-athletes and personnel, in each case in accordance with applicable state and local public health requirements.”

The idea that a symptomatic player might demand isolation and separate travel home from a road trip — the NCAA guidelines recommend immediately quarantining players and coaches in those situations — sounds like another budget item for a school that hopes to take a fiscally responsible approach to the months ahead, especially given its steep travel costs.

The University of Montana spends about $2 million on travel each year, and it costs about $25,000 for some trips by plane to Pac-12 and conference schools, thanks to the limited access to flights from Missoula International Airport. It isn’t uncommon for DeCuire’s team to hop through two or three airports to get where they’re going and get back. During the pandemic, however, he is recommending that opposing schools consider alternatives that limit layovers.

A $25,000 road trip can be reduced to about $5,000, per school officials, if the team travels by bus. But that extends the amount of time on the road. A trip from Missoula to Fargo, North Dakota, to play a nonconference game against North Dakota State would take more than 13 hours one way. The school might have to make that call to address costs and safety concerns.

“We need to make sure the plans we develop can ensure the health and safety of our student-athletes, our students and faculty and staff on our campus,” Montana president Seth Bodnar said.

Derrick Carter-Hollinger, who averaged 6.7 PPG last season, hasn’t participated in the meetings that will affect his immediate future on the court. He said he hopes his team’s cautiousness will be validated once the season begins.

He and his roommates, also basketball players, have largely avoided parties on campus. They spend most of their time outside practice in their living room, where they play video games or watch movies. Earlier this week, they streamed “Den of Thieves,” a bank heist flick featuring rapper 50 Cent. It was a pleasant distraction as they prepare for an uncertain season.

Carter-Hollinger said he has been tested multiple times throughout the preseason. During his first test, a nurse told him he had to repeat the steps after the swab didn’t go far enough into his nose. “It feels so weird coming out,” he said of the swab. He said he would contact his coaches and training staff if he ever thought he had symptoms. At Montana, a synchronized approach has given student-athletes confidence in the process.

As Carter-Hollinger and his teammates wait for more information, the decisions about the season will come from coaches, leaders and health officials navigating a new set of circumstances for the university. Where will they play? Whom will they play? What about testing? How will they keep the student-athletes safe? What if, without football or with an interrupted basketball season, the budget deficit grows in the athletic department?

Carter-Hollinger has not considered these possibilities. He just wants to play basketball, and he’s staying home to do his part, he said. The rest? It’s out of his control.

“It really did suck at first, not seeing the city jump like it used to,” Carter-Hollinger said. “But this is the sacrifice we have to make if we want to have a season.”

The lingering questions for Montana’s athletic budget in the pandemic are tied to the NCAA’s decision to move FCS football to the spring. The impact of football at Montana and beyond can’t be understated.

Montana’s average attendance at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula is 22,545, second only to that of Jackson State (33,782) at the FCS level. That total is more than some FBS programs can claim, including UNLV and UConn, which each failed to crack 20,000 on average this past season.

Football games are major events for a school that benefits from concession sales and parking revenue. Without TV money, the school needs fans in the stands to play football. That’s why Montana might decide against playing the spring season. Current regulations would limit the number of fans who could attend games, and school officials have created a formula that suggests that playing football with 5,000 or fewer fans in the spring would be the financial equivalent of canceling the season.

“Unless there is some drastic revamping of media rights, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for us,” Montana athletic director Kent Haslam said.

The decision about the size of the football crowd, critical for revenue, is out of Haslam’s control. In Montana, the governor’s guidelines are regulated and policed by a designated official. Ellen Leahy, director and health officer of the Missoula City-County Health Department, holds the power to create and enforce restrictions. Right now, Missoula allows limited “cohorts” of 50 or fewer people, as long as they don’t mix.

In any stadium or arena, Leahy said she would require socially distanced seating and access to multiple entrances and exits. She said it will be easier to create a plan for men’s and women’s basketball than for college football. She said any plan will have to help local health officials contact trace any possible cases, which is difficult with a large crowd.

“We haven’t had anything that’s that big,” she said. “Right on the front end, you can probably do that with basketball. You can’t do it with football. We will continue to look at the [state] guidance.”

Montana’s hope to generate the necessary revenue from football ticket sales in the spring could be a challenge. Overall, Montana has had just more than 11,000 cases and one of the nation’s lowest rates per capita since the pandemic began six months ago. Missoula County adopted a mask requirement earlier than every other county in the state but one. By March 12, the university campus had made a quick switch to remote learning.

Leahy said Missoula County doesn’t have enough rapid tests for every resident, and it can take up to four days to get results from “PCR” tests sent to the state lab. That’s a concern as the number of cases increases. Per the New York Times coronavirus map, the state had the 10th-highest rate in America the past seven days (155 cases per 100,000 residents) in data reported Friday.

Leahy said the return of students to Missoula has fueled the rise in cases, calling young people ages 20-29 the most culpable group. Members of that group are trying to play football and basketball in the coming months, too.

The NCAA’s new guidelines state that basketball “was listed as a high contact risk sport with regard to COVID-19,” a sentiment Leahy said the CDC has echoed. The men’s and women’s basketball teams at Montana could represent the first group of athletes to leave Missoula and travel to multiple cities and towns in the region. The Big Sky Conference stretches across eight states.

“We’re always connecting on planes,” Haslam said. “We rarely travel by charter. We have had these conversations. I think it’s a concern for the campus. Basketball will be the first sport we send out and have them come back.”

That’s why Leahy said she’s unwilling to offer any guarantees about the coming months when today’s resolutions about the pandemic can seem outdated by the following day.

“It’s a difficult decision,” she said of sports at Montana this fall and winter. “It’s not one I think they can eyeball from where we are now.”

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