UTEP & C-USA Schools Explore Ways to Reduce Athletic Budgets
As universities in Conference USA start to mull over their respective athletic budgets for the 2020-21 academic year, there's one common ground for each school: trying to find ways to reduce costs and save money.
C-USA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will be reduced from 12 to eight teams, as first reported last week by Brett McMurphy, while the conference is also planning to reduce regular-season games or postseason format in other C-USA Olympic sports. Splitting the league up—similar to football's east and west divisions—in order to have regional opponents has also been discussed.
"There's no question that everyone is trying to reduce expenses because we've seen a significant reduction in revenue," Director of Athletics Jim Senter told SportsTalk on Monday. "Everybody is looking for the right answer and what's the right mix. It's different from campus to campus and every campus has a different model, whether it's student fees or it's ticket sales, donation, institutional support."
Senter went on to discuss one way to reduce expenses for the upcoming year—trimming down travel costs.
"Everybody is looking for some ways to reduce expenses and honestly, team travel is one of those big ones," he explained. "Obviously, if you play one less game per sport, you have one less expense, whether you're hosting or traveling. For the short time to make some tough decisions like this, I'm in favor of it."
There are some universities in the league that witnessed the fallout of a reduced budget. Florida International suspended its men's indoor track and field, while the department furloughed 22 of its employees. Old Dominion also cut wrestling from its sports.
Also, universities must be mindful of the important "buy games" in football this fall. This fall, 39 major college football schools have scheduled a total of 49 buy games worth an estimated $65 million, according to The Associated Press. It is imperative that these games take place. Fans in the stands would be the icing on the cake for the buy games too.
UTEP is already at the minimum number of Division I athletic programs (16) and Senter thinks the athletic department won't make "a lot of cuts" and will need to "tighten [their] belts" in some areas for expenses. Senter explained how he's currently working with coaches for feedback on areas where the sport can lessen budgets.
However, Senter did explain the NCAA waiver process if a university had to fall below the 16 minimum program count.
"As an example, Central Michigan cut one of their sports and they actually dropped below the minimum. They went to the NCAA and asked for a waiver for two years and the NCAA granted (it)," Senter said. "That's the only school I'm aware of that applied for the waiver and was granted it by the NCAA."
And then there are rumors of a possible C-USA and Sun Belt merger at some point to help the schools trim travel expenses and be closer geographically. Senter acknowledged the rumors and spoke about more of a "scheduling alliance" than the conferences combining.
"That has been a hot topic. Let's face it, the Sun Belt and Conference USA kind of overlap one another with our membership," Senter said. "In some ways, it makes sense. As an example, why would we travel to the far east in the eastern time zone and play someone over there when we could travel to San Marcos and play Texas State? The truth is there's only one of the Sun Belt schools in Texas and UT-Arlington is in as a basketball-only school. But there aren't a lot of schools in our footprint of Texas. You'll have to go into Louisianna.
"For us, we're the furthest outpost on the west edge, so there's not a lot of opportunities for us. Everybody keeps talking about it. In other areas, it might make more sense. I think people are looking at more scheduling alliances than a full-fledge merger."
Senter also told SportsTalk that the plan is for "50 percent or better" fans in attendance this fall at the Sun Bowl—barring any unforeseen circumstances with the coronavirus—which means that a lot of financial implications will weigh heavily on the football season.
Even with a conference merger, cutting travel costs or, at worst, cutting a sports program, the financial fallout of the coronavirus places each athletic department in a situation to reevaluate its own budget. And UTEP must hope that it can get as many fans in the stands to help offset some of those budget cuts.