At the outset of the current pandemic, it was not generally expected to be a factor for the duration that it has for college sports. East Carolina athletic director Jon Gilbert has been wrestling with COVID-19-related issues for almost seven months. The coronavirus has severely impacted football attendance and greatly reduced income from ECU’s flagship sport.
“This is not something that we all anticipated,” Gilbert said. “If you go back to middle of March when the pandemic hit and the (American Athletic Conference) basketball tournament was canceled, we all — and maybe our plan was too hopeful or wishful thinking — but we certainly thought that by the time football season came around that we would be past it and moving forward in a normal light.
“Obviously, that’s not the case as you look around the country, there is a limited number of attendance in football that has a direct financial impact. We’ve had to postpone games due to COVID outbreaks and so there are financial ramifications when that happens and we’re not any different than every other school that’s going through it.
“When you have a limited capacity and you’re not able to generate revenue, not only from football tickets sales but all the ancillary buckets of revenue, concessions, sponsorships, licensing, Pirate Club. All those revenue buckets continue to take a hit while still trying to maintain and improve our football program.”
UCF — Under Capacity Fallout
A season opener against a Central Florida team that was nationally-ranked would normally be a good draw at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, which seats 50,000. Attendance restrictions took a huge bite out of what would have been a profitable matchup under normal conditions.
“We were only able to get 350 people in the stands and those individuals actually didn’t pay,” Gilbert said. “They were players’ families. We did have athletic department staff that actually volunteered to work the game so our expenses, we tried to limit them as much as possible. Certainly, when you open up a stadium and have a game, there is an expense for it. We’re still getting TV revenue that we’ll get at the end of the year. It’s important to play the games because that is a piece of revenue that we can still obtain.”
One major expense has been eliminated. ECU paid $500,000 annually as a membership fee to the AAC upon joining the league in 2014. That obligation has been completed.
“Conservatively, ball park, losing the Central Florida game, stands full and everything, it’s right around a million dollars in a revenue hit,” Gilbert said. “I’m just talking about in-venue revenue, not TV money.”
New TV contract
The good news for the Pirates and other AAC programs is that the league is in the first year of a more-lucrative television contract.
“We’re obviously producing content for (TV) and so we’ll continue to get TV revenue,” Gilbert said. “Unless. … The only way they would look at that is if the American Athletic didn’t provide enough TV content where our provider felt like they could come in and do a reduction but there’s been no discussion about that.”
“We’re in the new contract year. … That is a $6- to $6.5-million revenue distribution (to ECU).”
ECU’s next two games will be shown on ESPN+, a subscription service. Fans who watch the Pirates’ contest at South Florida (1-2, 0-1 AAC) on Saturday at 7 p.m, can get some satisfaction perhaps that the program will recoup some of their investment.
More fans for Navy
North Carolina regulations will allow seven percent of capacity for the Navy game on Oct. 17 at noon. That’s 3,500.
“We’ll have seven percent for the Navy game,” Gilbert said. “We will provide a number of tickets to ECU player families, Navy player families. We’ll go by donor priority and then we’ll also have a number of tickets for our students. I’m hopeful in the next day or two, we’re going to be able to release exactly what those specific numbers are.
“We’re working through that model.”
A matchup with Marshall, which had three dates in August and September, may yet be played this season. For now, the Pirates (0-2, 0-1 AAC) have seven league games remaining on the 2020 schedule.
“We’re anticipating playing all remaining games,” Gilbert said. “I’m still hopeful that at some point, we’ll be able to reschedule the Marshall game. That really is going to depend on if Marshall is in any conference championship game or not and/or if either of us have any cancellations along the way that align with one another where we could reschedule the game quickly.”
There is some excitement building as basketball season approaches with the general consensus that Joe Dooley and staff are in the process of upgrading the program’s talent level. Still, there are COVID-related kinks to work out in relation to scheduling and seating.
“We’re still working through what the medical protocols will be,” Gilbert said. “It looks like it’s going to be a 27-game schedule. That’s what’s being proposed. We’re still trying to determine all of the necessary protocols and what that would look like for basketball season.
“I also am anticipating reduced attendance at basketball, at least initially. I’m also anticipating a different floor configuration in the arena. It may be that we have to do some modifications to the floor seating to provide some social distancing.
“We’re working on a multi-team event. If we indeed go through with a multi-team event then we can add four additional nonconference games. We’re working through that process right now. The start date for basketball is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 25).”
The traditional status quo in college athletics is out the window.
“Obviously, it’s an unprecedented time in higher education and in athletics,” Gilbert said. “We’re all dealing with the exact same issues so every school is dealing with similar issues. We’re all dealing with reduced revenue so we’re all having to make very difficult decisions to try to reduce expenditures as much as possible.”