When the Pac-12 Conference announced last week that it would squeeze in a football season this fall, following other top leagues and overturning its own decision from August to wait until 2021, the responses were predictable.
Football fans were excited. Others questioned why esteemed universities would even attempt to play football amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The New York Times is camped out, virtually and on campus, at one Pac-12 school — the University of California, Berkeley — to chronicle the challenges of reopening a $100 million athletic department, with 30 sports and 850 athletes, in these times.
On Friday, reporter John Branch spoke one-on-one with Jim Knowlton, Cal’s athletic director. Like most other leading N.C.A.A. university athletic departments, Cal relies on football for a large part of its operating budget.
The following excerpts from the conversation have been lightly edited and condensed.
Branch: Give me reasons you think it is important that football be played this fall.
Knowlton: Our student-athletes who are here to play football are really, really desperately wanting to play football. If we can do it, along with the rest of the nation as they do it, I think that’s important for their mental health, for the camaraderie that comes with it. I say that, acknowledging that we would have never got to this point if we hadn’t found ways to do it safely for our student-athletes, our staff, our coaches and our community. I also think it is a huge team builder for our alums, our communities. If it can be done safely, it really is a shot in the arm.
Can you say, honestly, that money was not a consideration?
I can tell you very honestly that we have a budget plan that allowed us to do everything we needed to do if we didn’t have football. We have found a way to balance our numbers with a $55 million shortfall. If you run an athletic department, there are so many pieces to every single decision. For me to say I’m not cognizant of the financial implications would tell you I’m not a responsible leader. But that certainly did not drive our decisions.
What does playing football this fall mean financially?
I know exactly what my budget would have been if the pandemic never hit and we played football and all of our sports. I also know what our budget looks like if all of our fall sports did not play at all this year. What we’re still sorting out now is, what does this mean to our television partners now that we’re looking at a seven-game season, and providing 41 league games to ESPN and Fox, our partners? I have a rough idea, but we don’t know yet.
You had discussed taking out loans to cover budget deficits. Does this change that?
We were planning on a $55 million shortfall. And we had worked through all of our numbers — the cuts we’ve made, the salary reductions, the reductions in our operational budget, and some of the other pieces — and it looked like roughly a $20 million loan was what we were going to look for. Depending on how much we receive from our TV partners, it could be no loan at all, if, in fact, we get $20-plus million from our TV partners. That would be great news for us, since we’ve got debt service already. We can balance our numbers with a $55 million loss, so any of the revenue is just going to help us in that pursuit.
I got an email this morning from a former Cal athlete and current donor who is concerned about the future of nonrevenue Olympic sports. Does this decision help keep them viable?
When I started at Cal, the chancellor and I agreed that cutting sports was the absolute last resort. Even in this pandemic year, we had developed a financial plan that allowed us to meet our numbers and support all of our sports — knowing that this is going to be a hard year, but that it was like a V-shape that would come back over the next year or 18 months.
Does more revenue help us support more student-athletes and more sports? Yes, of course. We have worked to continue to support all of our sports. Each one took a reduction in their operational budget as we went into Covid and the postponements. More revenue always helps do a better job supporting everything, but cutting Olympic sports has not been part of our discussions.
Without fans in the stadium, you might lose millions in ticket revenue. How will playing football impact other budget items, like donations and sponsorships?
We had over a 91 percent season-ticket renewal rate, which was amazing this year. We gave our season-ticket holders options to donate what they’d already put down, roll it to next year, or get a refund. And less than 7 percent of our season-ticket holders asked for a refund.
We’ve all been in limbo saying, well, if there’s no football, here’s the implication with our sponsors. That is what we’re sorting out. We’ve had 12, 14 hours to start working on this. Once we’re down the road a week, and have had conversations with all of our partners, we’ll start to be able to see exactly what the budget implications are of this decision. And then the second- and third-order effects of it.
Who are some of the people that you felt pressure from to get this going?
The beauty of this is that I didn’t feel pressure from anybody. I think all of our alums, and so many in early August, wrote me and said, “Jim, I’m proud of the decision that the chancellor made. It was the right decision based on the information you had.” And so I did not feel pressure from any group — except maybe our student-athletes who were excited about playing, if we could do it safely. And until we could, I just couldn’t look them in the eye, their parents in the eye, and say we’ve got a good handle on all of our protocols and all we’re going to do to go back to contact practices and competitions. So I didn’t feel the pressure. And when we were able to find a way to meet our budget numbers, even without football, I was content, that when it was right, we’d make the decision.
As an athletic director, you’re used to defending the amount of attention and money that athletic departments get. Sometimes that criticism comes from within the campus, when people point out how much universities are paying coaches compared to professors. In this era of Covid-19, at a university like Cal, where the classrooms can’t open but all these things are being done to get the fields and the gyms open, how do you counter the notion that the priorities of schools like Cal are out of whack?
The provost and the chancellor have been working absolutely diligently since Covid began on ways to continue to open up the campus. We brought 2,000 students back into housing, our research density is at 25 percent and growing, we’ve had athletes doing voluntary workouts outdoors on our campus. And each piece of campus continues to look at what we can do safely that will continue to allow the campus to open.
I don’t see us as being on an island. I see us as part of a larger campus, looking to grow the footprint back on campus. We’re continuing to do and hope that the current trajectory and success continues, because I think we’re doing it right.