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Big 12 AD: It's not safety versus revenue..."reality lies somewhere in the middle"

With the uncertainty growing day by day around the 2020 college football season, Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard prepared a statement directed at Cyclone Nation today aimed at making it clear why they're doing everything in their power to make sure they can safely play college sports this fall.

It's a well thought out and enlightening piece that communicates a lot of the complicated angles being taken into consideration.

One of the big sticking points for the side of the argument against college sports this fall in the face of the COVID pandemic is centered on safety, and rightly so. Programs that have returned to voluntary campus workouts all have a long list of new procedures and precautions that they're undertaking, but the safety concern of fall sports like football persists. On the other side of the aisle are folks who see the drastic hit that revenue would take without sports like football and the ticket sales, TV revenue, and private donations that come along with it.

As Pollard shares with Cyclone fans, it's not as clear cut as looking at safety vs. revenue generation.

"Some people have incorrectly framed the issue as safety versus revenue generation. The simple fact is that reality lies somewhere in the middle. As leaders, we remain committed to safety first. As I outlined in my letter on June 25, 2020, we are working hard to develop and implement mitigation strategies to reduce the risk to players and fans at events this fall. More details about these plans will be provided in the near future."

Pollard goes on to share, that if they're unable to play sports in Ames this fall they're going to incur about $40 million in unfunded expenses over the next six months, and contingency plans for that large of a figure are daunting. Adding revenue already lost from the start of COVID through August of 2020 and Iowa State projects to lose an addition $73 million. That's just Iowa State, and doesn't even begin to take into account the local area businesses that depend on the surge that comes along with fall sports to keep their doors open.

What about moving fall sports to the spring, an option that many high school associations are weighing? Pollard notes the most significant challenge for that plan is that they'll have to commit to another 6-months of operational costs including academic, medical, and nutritional support for athletes with no revenue coming in to cover those expenses.

"While we cannot eliminate all of the risk associated with athletic competition, under current conditions we believe that moving forward with fall sports can be accomplished. We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic presents a constantly changing decision-making environment and changing health and safety conditions may not allow sports to proceed. This is why it is so important to discuss and develop contingency plans should the pandemic worsen," Pollard shares.

"The purpose of this letter is not to lobby for support or discredit anyone fearful of COVID-19. It is, instead, to enlighten you about the issues of health and finance that we are balancing."

Below is Pollard's full statement.

July 13, 2020

Dear Cyclone fans,

There has been significant conversation about the prospects for a 2020 college sports season and the impact such a decision would have on the future of intercollegiate athletics.

I feel it is imperative and timely to clarify the reasons why we are doing everything in our power to try and safely play college sports this fall.

Some people have incorrectly framed the issue as safety versus revenue generation. The simple fact is that reality lies somewhere in the middle. As leaders, we remain committed to safety first. As I outlined in my letter on June 25, 2020, we are working hard to develop and implement mitigation strategies to reduce the risk to players and fans at events this fall. More details about these plans will be provided in the near future.

We must also be cognizant of the absolute need to generate revenues to sustain our long-term operations. We felt it was important to be transparent about the financial realities in college athletics today to add some context to the discussion. Although I am most-familiar with our financial situation, many peers have shared similar stories in regards to their financial projections.

The Iowa State athletics budget does not include any state or university funding and relies mainly on television revenues, private donations and ticket sales. If those revenues decrease dramatically or are eliminated, we will have unfunded financial obligations. The remedies to having unfunded financial obligations are significant and would require us to explore options that may include operational reductions or eliminations, layoffs, and even elimination of sport programs.

Our $86M annual departmental budget is broken down between fixed and variable costs.

FIXED COSTS VARIABLE COSTS

Salaries $30M Sport Program Operations $12M

Debt Service $10M Academic, Medical & Nutrition $7M

Scholarships $9M Facilities & Events $6M

Utilities/Other $6M Administration $6M

Total Fixed Costs $55M Total Variable Costs $31M

If we are unable to play sports this fall, the athletics department would incur approximately $40M in unfunded expenses in the next six months. I am working closely with President Wintersteen to find innovative contingency plans to address the difficult challenges presented if these projections become a reality. However, the truth is that there are significant financial impacts being felt across the university and the state that limit our options. The university's revenue loss for its educational fund for FY21 is more than $41 million. Since the start of COVID-19 through August 23, 2020, the university's revenue losses and costs are estimated to be an additional $73 million. Furthermore, state agencies, including the university and its departments, are not allowed to incur debt for operating expenses.

The financial impact we are facing stretches beyond our department and its employees. The ramifications would also be devastating for the state, university and local community. Many residents and area businesses rely upon our events for their economic survival.

In addition, the financial disruption caused by not having a football season would have an overwhelming negative impact on the safety and well-being of the 475 student-athletes we support. The revenue generated by the department is necessary to provide the academic, medical, nutritional and athletic support that is relied upon by our student-athletes.

This is why we are so committed to trying to find a solution to safely play college sports. We understand there are serious health considerations that are implicated by moving forward with sports. However, we are confident that our department can provide a safer environment for the athletes in Ames, where they are motivated by their teammates and competition to modify their social behavior. We also feel confident that our mitigation efforts can reduce the risk for fans at Jack Trice Stadium. We will be transparent about these efforts so fans can evaluate and choose for themselves whether they are comfortable attending games or not.

While we cannot eliminate all of the risk associated with athletic competition, under current conditions we believe that moving forward with fall sports can be accomplished. We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic presents a constantly changing decision-making environment and changing health and safety conditions may not allow sports to proceed. This is why it is so important to discuss and develop contingency plans should the pandemic worsen.

In the last six weeks, our football team and medical staff have proven how we can successfully combat the COVID-19 virus if we collectively commit to the necessary precautions. Since the football team returned to campus in early June for voluntary workouts, we have recorded just three positive cases among 160 football players and staff.

However, in order to continue to support our student-athletes in the required manner and keep them safe, we must generate funds to pay for the personnel and costs associated with these services. If there is no football this fall, the traditional financial support for those services would not be available.

Some people have suggested that we should simply play fall sports in the spring when the challenges of COVID-19 could be reduced. Unfortunately, there are no guarantee things will improve in the spring and there are numerous hurdles to overcome. The most-significant challenge is committing another six months of operational costs (roughly $40M in our case) for the fall semester with no revenues to cover those expenses.

The purpose of this letter is not to lobby for support or discredit anyone fearful of COVID-19. It is, instead, to enlighten you about the issues of health and finance that we are balancing. Our efforts are laser-focused on developing a plan for the fall sports season that is safe for our teams and fans and can generate enough financial support to sustain our athletics program.

We appreciate your continued support and understanding. I can promise you that our staff is exploring every option with the hope that we can find solutions. Iowa State University prides itself on innovative thinking and we are being put to our greatest test right now.

Go Cyclones!

Sincerely,

Pollard Signature

Jamie Pollard
Director of Athletics