One of the biggest stories in college athletics over the last year-plus has been the financial impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on athletic departments – and universities at large – as many athletic seasons were canceled or postponed, fan attendance was severely limited or eliminated in some cases, athletic programs were cut and athletic departments enacted cost-saving measures, such as layoffs and furloughs. There have been countless anecdotes about these consequences but in an effort to provide greater context and specificity in regards to some of the early effects that the pandemic has had on the Power 5 conferences – the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC – I obtained the latest NCAA Membership Financial Reporting System (FRS) report for every public Power 5 school from the 2020 fiscal year in order to conduct a comprehensive analysis.
Each day for the rest of this week, I’ll publish a newsletter that focuses on different aspects of the 2020 FRS reports: media rights, conference and NCAA distributions, and contributions; salaries, benefits and bonuses for coaches, and support and administrative staff, plus severance payments paid to former coaches and athletic department administrators; and recruiting and team travel.
What you need to know
- NCAA Division I institutions are required to file annually an FRS report, which is subject to agreed-upon procedures that are performed by an independent accounting firm, such as James Moore & Co., whose CPAs and partners provided valuable insight for a recent newsletter on the tax implications of name, image and likeness deals.
- For the purposes of FRS reports, the financial year starts July 1 and ends June 30, which means the FRS reports for the 2020 fiscal year include the 2019 college football season and only the first few months of the shutdown of college athletics due to the pandemic.
- FRS reports list more than 20 categories of revenue and more than 20 types of expenses, which are also itemized by sport, which allows media members and fans to get a closer look at the inner workings of collegiate athletic departments.
- However, it’s really important to not overestimate what you can learn from FRS reports. Last fall, Matt Brown of Extra Points interviewed James Moore & Co. partner and CPA Katie Davis about college athletics accounting and Davis said that from FRS reports, you can learn about major sources of revenue and expenses, as well as trends in coaching salaries, recruiting expenses and ticket sales, but you can’t learn “the true financial outlook of an athletics program,” nor can you perform an “apples-to-apples comparison between two different athletic programs.” Given the timing of when various expenses and sources of revenue take effect, as well as different accounting practices and interpretations at different schools, financial figures on FRS reports can’t be blindly taken at face value and then compared to the rest of the college athletics ecosystem.
- You could argue the potential comparisons that have any value are those that compare the same institution against itself, year over year, and even those comparisons might require greater context in order to tell the whole story. Given these caveats, the graphics and charts in this series are intended to show big-picture trends in college athletics over time, rather than head-to-head comparisons between individual athletic departments.
NCAA FRS reports for the 2020 fiscal year show some of the early impacts that the COVID-19 pandemic had on Power 5 athletic departments, as reported annual revenue and expenses both declined by several millions of dollars, on average, while travel and recruiting expenditures dropped considerably compared to the previous fiscal year, and many athletic departments received fewer financial contributions. While the nature of the accounting behind these reports prevents head-to-head comparisons between institutions, when dozens of athletic departments are collectively examined against their own reports from the 2019 fiscal year and years prior, we can attempt to make some 10,000-foot observations about the early financial impacts of the pandemic on college athletics, as well as potential trends to watch in the industry as the next fiscal year approaches.
The full picture of the financial consequences of the pandemic won’t be realized until the release of the FRS reports for the 2021 fiscal year, and even subsequent years.
I obtained the 2020 FRS report for every public Power 5 institution, plus Penn State, which is classified as a state-related institution but it still publicly releases its FRS report annually. In total, that’s 52 of the 64 Power 5 schools.
Private institutions, such as Baylor, Boston College, Duke, Miami (FL), Northwestern, Stanford, Syracuse, TCU, USC, Vanderbilt and Wake Forest, are not subject to public records requests. Like Penn State, Pittsburgh is also a state-related institution in the state of Pennsylvania, but unlike Penn State, it doesn’t release its FRS report. Those 12 schools were not included in this analysis.
Note: Oregon’s 2020 FRS report included a one-time, non-cash gift of more than $270 million for a field renovation, which was removed from this analysis as to not skew the overall data.
Revenue decreased in FY20 more than expenses decreased
The 52 public Power 5 athletic departments examined reported a combined $205-million decrease in total operating revenue from the 2019 fiscal year ($6.7 billion) to the 2020 fiscal year ($6.5 billion), or an average decline in revenue of roughly $3.9 million per institution, from roughly $129 million to roughly $125 million.
Individually, 33 of the 52 athletic departments, or 63 percent, reported a decrease in revenue in the 2020 fiscal year compared to their respective FRS reports from the 2019 fiscal year. The bar chart below shows the average total operating revenue reported per athletic department in each Power 5 conference over the last two fiscal years.
While many athletic departments also reported fewer expenses in the 2020 fiscal year compared to 2019, those savings – frequently tied to a reduction in expense categories such as travel or recruiting – often didn’t exceed the decreases in revenue they faced. For 29 of the 52 schools, the year-over-year decrease in revenue was greater than any potential year-over-year savings from reduced expenses.
In total, the public Power 5 athletic departments examined reported a combined $142-million decrease in expenses in the 2020 fiscal year (roughly $6.41 billion) compared to 2019 (roughly $6.56 billion), or an average decrease of roughly $2.7 million in expenses per school, from $126 million to $123 million. Individually, 39 of the 52 athletic departments reported fewer expenses in 2020 than they reported on their respective 2019 FRS reports.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that as revenue decreased by several millions of dollars per athletic department, on average, so did expenses. The scatter plot below, which was part of a previous newsletter on how athletic departments spend money as revenue increases, shows the relationship between revenue and expenses for current Big 12 institutions and former members, when they were in the conference. The scatter plot has an R-squared value of .974, which suggests 97.4 percent of the variance in total operating expenses can be explained by total operating revenue.
This tells us that as we expect athletic departments to report much more significant financial hits on their 2021 FRS reports, we can also expect that their spending will likely decrease by a generally similar amount, on average.
On average, public Power 5 institutions saw their reported net revenues over/under expenses decrease by an average of $1.2 million in the 2020 fiscal year compared to the 2019 fiscal year. The average reported net gain per athletic department fell from $3.1 million in 2019 to $1.9 million in 2020.
However, this doesn’t mean that every athletic department was “profitable,” or that the final net gain or loss that’s listed in bold font on the last page of an FRS report necessarily reflects the true financial status of an athletic department. For example, FRS reports list direct institutional support that a university provides to its athletic department as revenue, even if the funds are just transferred within the university ecosystem, sometimes as a loan. There are times when a university covers the cost of scholarships for the athletic department and there are times when an athletic department pays the university in athletic student aid; even if the money stays within the university at large, it can still be reported as revenue or expenses for the athletic department.
Plus, athletes who are on a partial athletic scholarship, or who aren’t on any athletic scholarships, may still pay tuition to the university, which brings in revenue to the university at large, even if that money isn’t reported as revenue on an athletic department’s FRS report. This is an important part of the discussion when evaluating the perceived profitability of an Olympic-sport program.
The questions about the perceived profitability of athletic departments remain as reported total operating revenue has steadily increased over the last decade and a half.
The bar chart below shows the trend in how the total annual operating revenue for 20 Power 5 athletic departments has increased on a similar trajectory from the 2005 fiscal year through the 2020 fiscal year, with the institutions listed in descending order of their reported total operating revenue during the 2020 fiscal year. After the trajectory of this revenue trend often turned into a plateau or a slight decrease for many athletic departments in 2020, we can expect significant declines in 2021 – the likes of which we haven’t seen industry-wide during the time period examined.
Note: Financial data isn’t available for every year for every institution listed above.
Here are some examples of why we should generally avoid head-to-head comparisons
On an individual basis, a school’s FRS report may not tell the whole story about its athletic department’s financial situation, which is why a university or athletic department spokesperson will often provide additional context when responding to a public records request for a university’s FRS report.
AL.com reported that Alabama deferred $24.5 million in contributions from 2019 to 2020, which is why the athletic department reported a $21.2-million loss in 2019 and a net gain of $16.1 million in 2020. Contributions are counted on an FRS report once they’re used by a university.
The Clarion Ledger provided a good reminder that Ole Miss’ more than $8-million jump in bowl revenue from 2019 to 2020 was because the school was on NCAA probation in 2019. That’s obviously not the result of an accounting quirk; that’s just the result of violations under former coaches.
When NC State provided me with the school’s latest FRS report, a university representative noted that the athletic department’s reserve cash balance covered the $2.1 million loss in revenue that’s shown on the report. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Georgia’s $40-million surplus “does not reflect more than $21 million paid toward completed and ongoing construction projects,” nor does it include an annual $4.5-million payment from the athletic association to the university.
In each of the last two fiscal years, Maryland and Rutgers both reported receiving $0 from their media rights, while Big Ten peer Wisconsin reported more than $50 million.
The former two schools both appear to have reported all of their revenue from their media rights as part of their conference distributions, which is why Maryland has reported more than $40 million in conference distributions and Rutgers reported close to $30 million, while Wisconsin reported just $4,123 in net conference distributions in FY19 and just over a half-million dollars in FY20.
So, individual schools might face unique circumstances or apply specific accounting rules that aren’t explained in a raw report of revenues and expenses. But when more than 50 Power 5 schools are analyzed together and compared against their own reports from past years, we can arguably make more accurate, sweeping judgments about the general landscape of college athletics and identify individual trends in the industry, which might otherwise be irresponsible to try to make if you just compare two schools’ financial reports against each other.