AUBURN — Allen Greene publicly acknowledged the challenges Auburn may face due to the COVID-19 pandemic on Friday in a letter to donors and season ticket holders, which was published to the university’s athletics website.
The athletics director said Auburn is “evaluating every expense while seeking to preserve the unparalleled student-athlete experience for which Auburn is renowned” in a call for Tigers Unlimited donors and season ticket holders to continue providing the resources that “have allowed Auburn to compete for championships in the most competitive league in America, the Southeastern Conference.”
The letter included a graphic that showed that $63 million of the athletic department’s $150 million annual operating budget comes directly from football donations and ticket sales. That’s 42 percent.
“While this support has always been vital to Auburn’s success, it’s never been more critical than it is right now,” Greene wrote. “Like our peers, ticket sales, donations and media rights comprise our three largest revenue sources.
“Any alteration to the 2020 football season, whether fewer games, fewer fans or both, would further magnify Auburn’s reliance on the generosity of our donors.”
Auburn’s athletics department reported a record revenue of $152.4 million during the 2018-19 fiscal year, which is the most recent one that financial records are available. Of that total, more than $95.1 million (62.4 percent) came directly from football, which operated with a profit of $47.3 million.
The rest of the school’s sports combined to lose $34.1 million (men’s basketball is the only other program that generates a revenue surplus), so any changes to the college football season could have a significant impact on Auburn’s bottom line.
Greene didn’t offer any insight into if or how many fans would be welcome inside Jordan-Hare Stadium if there are games there this fall, nor did he hint at any changes that may be coming to the schedule.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said last week that the conference hopes to make some sort of decision about the future of the fall athletics season next week — Brandon Marcello of 247Sports reports that the presidents and chancellors are scheduled to meet virtually on Thursday.
There are a number of possible directions the SEC could decide to go, from starting the season on time; to moving to a shortened conference-only or conference plus-one or -two schedule with a delayed start (like the Big Ten and Pac-12); or shifting the entire season to the spring (like five FCS conferences already have, including the Ivy League and SWAC).
The latter has already affected Auburn’s 2020 season — Alcorn State, which plays out of the SWAC, was scheduled to visit Jordan-Hare Stadium on Sept. 5. The Tigers don’t currently have a season-opening opponent.
As of right now, “Auburn’s 550 student-athletes in 21 sports continue to have everything they need — scholarships, coaching, facilities, nutrition, sports medicine, academic support and mental health services — to compete at the highest level while becoming Auburn women and men,” Greene wrote.
Auburn appears to be handling coronavirus well among its athletes, too — the football team reported only three positive tests when players first returned to campus in early June, and while it has not shared whether it has had any more positive tests since, Dr. Michael Goodlett said in a story posted to the athletics website that “the few positives that we’ve had have all been virtually asymptomatic throughout the whole two-week isolation.”
“We haven’t had an overabundance of positives,” Goodlett said. “When we have had one, in every case it’s been limited to where maybe a roommate is also positive. But we’ve had no widespread clusters where one positive caused five cases or more.”
Still, no one knows yet what the future holds for college athletics, especially with tens of thousands of students set to return to campus for the fall semester as COVID-19 cases continue to surge around the country.
“While the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming college football season and other fall sports prevents us from knowing the full extent of the fiscal challenge we’ll face in 2020-21,” Greene wrote, “we know it will be significant.
“Your contributions will help Auburn weather this crisis and position the Tigers to enjoy even greater success after the coronavirus storm has passed.”