AUBURN — Back in March, when COVID-19 had only just begun to ravage America and shut down college sports, Allen Greene was asked how not having a football season in the fall would impact Auburn’s budget.
The athletics director didn’t want to speculate. At the time, the SEC was planning on playing football in the fall. It still is.
Four months later, though, there are questions not only about how the season will proceed amid the global pandemic, but whether it will happen at all as case numbers rise in the Southeast and throughout the country. Several FCS conferences, including the SWAC, have already announced that they will postpone fall sports competition until at least 2021. The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced earlier this month that they will play only conference games.
The SEC plans to wait until the end of July to make a decision about the fate of the football season. It seems as if it could go a number of different ways, from starting the season on time in September, to playing a conference-only or conference plus-one or -two season with a delayed start, to moving the season to the spring, or anything in between.
Until that decision is made, it’s not worth speculating about what the potential fallout could be, both in terms of play on the field and the financials off it. But there is a question we can answer:
How much money is a college football season worth to Auburn athletics?
We’ll base the answer off the 2018-19 fiscal year, which is the last full athletics season Auburn played as well as the most recent one that financial information is available for (2019-20 NCAA Membership Financial Reports should be made public early next year).
It’s also a good point of comparison to the 2020 football season — the 2018 campaign also featured a marquee nonconference game in Atlanta and road games against chief rivals Georgia and Alabama.
Auburn reported a record revenue of more than $152.4 million during the 2018-19 fiscal year. That total ranked 13th nationally, according to the USA Today database.
Of that $152.4 million, more than $95.1 million came directly from football. That total includes ticket sales ($29 million); donations from individuals, corporations, clubs or foundations ($29 million); media rights ($18.9 million); bowl game revenue ($7.2 million); a guarantee for the nonconference game in Atlanta ($4.2 million); and concessions and parking ($2 million), among other revenue streams.
Add it all up, and it equals 62.4 percent of the department’s total earnings. The program’s total expenses came out to a little more than $47.8 million, which means football operated at a profit of more than $47.3 million.
That excess is how Auburn funds the rest of its athletics department. Football is one of only two college sports considered a revenue-generator — the men’s basketball program brought in a revenue of $15.5 million, which was a profit of $5 million over its $10.5 million expenditure.
The rest of Auburn’s athletic programs (baseball, women’s basketball, equestrian, golf, gymnastics, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field/cross country and volleyball) brought in $41.7 million in revenue but cost $80.8 million to run — a net loss of $39.1 million. That’s why the department’s surplus was only $13.2 million.
So losing the college football season would be catastrophic for Auburn’s athletics department, which has operated at a profit for each of the past five years after losing money in three of the previous four years. That's especially true when you consider that many of football’s expenses will be incurred regardless of whether the games are played or not — coach and support staff salaries ($9.6 million); scholarships ($5.2 million); administrative expenses ($3.5 million); sports equipment, uniforms and supplies ($1.8 million); meals ($865,906); and “other” expenses, which total more than $6.7 million.
That’s why you’ll almost certainly see the Power 5 conferences, including the SEC, explore every possible avenue toward having a football season. That’s why the NCAA issued a set of return-to-sport guidelines last week.
Auburn likely won’t be able to match that $95.1 million in football revenue regardless. There won’t be 87,451 fans packed into Jordan-Hare Stadium for seven home games, which means a sizable reduction in ticket sales. The shortening of the season could reduce the amount of money SEC schools make from television deals. And any reduction in costs from paying fewer gameday stadium staff might be mitigated by the cost of weekly COVID-19 tests.
But, from a financial standpoint, some football is obviously far, far better than no football. The question is if — and when — the games can be played safely.