Giving NCAA athletes another year of eligibility for coronavirus cancellations is costly

NCAA Division I schools’ plan to preserve an additional year of eligibility for athletes in spring sports whose seasons were lost due to the coronavirus pandemic could place a significant additional cost on athletics departments that will be facing declining revenue.

Giving an additional season of eligibility just to seniors on spring-sports teams could cost public schools in the Power Five conferences anywhere from $500,000 to $900,000, a USA TODAY analysis of schools’ financial reports to the NCAA shows.

Schools outside the Power Five would face lower amounts, but FCS schools that have relatively robust spring sports offerings could be looking at a cost of around $400,000. However, for the schools that would be facing amounts much lower than that, the additional revenue needed — even in the best circumstances — is hard to come by.

The NCAA tournament has been canceled this year along with spring sports around the country due to coronavirus concerns.

And the outlay involved would grow dramatically if the option for a replacement season of eligibility were to be permitted for more than one class.

"I do believe it’s the right thing to talk about it and see what the possibilities are," said Eastern Washington athletics director Lynn Hickey, whose program has five spring sports teams and in 2018-19 provided less than the Division I-maximum number of scholarships in all of them. “In our situation, how do we come up with the funds for the extra scholarships that we weren’t counting on? Quite honestly, I don’t know how we would pay for it. I’m being very honest and transparent. I don’t know.”

On Friday, the NCAA announced that the Division I Council — a panel of administrators tasked with making rules affecting programs’ day-to-day operations — will vote on March 30 concerning “eligibility relief for student-athletes whose seasons were impacted by COVID-19 and other related issues.”

This came in the wake of the Council’s eight-member leadership group saying on March 13 that “eligibility relief is appropriate for all Division I student-athletes who participated in spring sports.”

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The Council’s decisions are subject to review by the Division I Board of Directors, a group of school presidents.

On the revenue side of the equation, it appears likely that distributions from the NCAA to Division I schools will be impacted by the cancellation of the Division I men’s basketball tournament. But those amounts constitute roughly 2% to 5% of athletics departments’ operating revenue. Bigger problems could come in ticket revenue and donations.

Some schools, including South Carolina and Georgia, already have announced extensions of football season ticket renewal deadlines and a willingness to work with customers regarding payment plans.

Donations, a substantial source of department revenue, could sharply decline amid the uncertain economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis.

"Philanthropic giving towards higher education, like the rest of the nonprofit sector, typically slows or declines in times of recession," said Noah D. Drezner, Professor of Higher Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.

To assess the potential cost impact of adding the season of eligibility, USA TODAY Sports examined the scholarship costs of NCAA-sanctioned spring sports during the 2018-19 fiscal year at 20 Division I athletics departments. The information came from schools' annual financial reports to the NCAA that USA TODAY compiled in partnership with Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

The 20-school sample covered different conferences and regions of the country in each of the division’s sub-classifications: Power Five, Group of Five, FCS and those that do not have football teams.

Identifying the number of spring-sports scholarships awarded by each university and using schools’ self-reported cost-of-attendance figures provided the basis for an estimate of the total investment required to give athletes the option of regaining lost eligibility during the 2020-21 academic year. It is possible that not all schools offer, or would offer, scholarships based on the full cost of attendance.

USA TODAY Sports' model adjusted for composition of rosters by class year by estimating that one fifth of each school’s scholarship outlay would be going to athletes who are losing what would have been their final season of eligibility. This accounts for the possibility that each senior on the 2019-20 roster had redshirted.

The model attempted to account for differentials between in-state and out-of-state costs by estimating that half of schools’ scholarship recipients are in-state students. At some public schools, the percentage of in-state scholarship recipients is greater, or athletic departments are charged in-state rates for out-of-state. But in addition to increases in the cost of tuition and other components of a scholarship, there likely would be other expenses involved with athletes staying for an extra season, such as additional food and equipment while roster sizes potentially increase at least temporarily.

The major unknown in all of this is the number of athletes who would actually choose to remain in school and play an extra season.

"I think we all know and are preparing for some sort of a budget impact, but there’s still a lot to unfold," said Auburn athletics director Allen Greene.

"It’s one of those circumstances where you want to do what’s in the best interests of the athletes, understanding that we don’t have financial clarity. You want to make that decision without thinking about finances, but you also have to recognize that there is a financial impact."

By USA TODAY Sports' estimate, Auburn would need about $480,000 to cover only one year of eligibility for this year's senior class, when spreading those scholarships across five seasons and splitting the costs of attendance for each scholarship between the in-state rate ($27,398) and the out-of-state rate ($48,112). That’s based on Auburn fielding eight spring teams and awarding the equivalent of just under 60 scholarships as in 2018-19.

Ohio State fielded 12 teams and handed out the equivalent of just over 112 scholarships during the 2019 spring season. So, it would need to pay about $8,000 to cover only one year of eligibility for this year's senior class, when spreading those scholarships across five seasons and splitting the costs of attendance for each scholarship between in-state ($27,398) and out-of-state ($48,112) athletes.

Citing the “number of variables in play,” Ohio State athletics spokesman Jerry Emig said the school’s athletics officials did not want to comment “until we know significantly more about the details of an extra year.”

A proportionally demanding financial outlay would be called for at universities with FBS programs on the Group of Five level, such as Central Florida ($425,000), Troy ($280,000), and Boise State ($270,000).

Even schools without football programs, such as the College of Charleston ($385,000) and California-Irvine ($410,000), could need to come up with significant funds. UC-Irvine has nine spring teams — half of its overall total — including men’s volleyball and women’s water polo.

"It may be the right thing to do," Eastern Washington’s Hickey said, "but realistically, I don’t know how we would pull it off without help."