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CU Buffs projecting rebound after $18M deficit in FY2021

Rick George: ‘Our budget continues to perform on schedule’

The return of fans to the Folsom Field stands in 2021 has helped the University of Colorado athletic department recover from a difficult 2020-21 year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The return of fans to the Folsom Field stands in 2021 has helped the University of Colorado athletic department recover from a difficult 2020-21 year impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an $18 million deficit for the Colorado athletic department for the 2021 fiscal year.

While it’s a significant number, it’s not as bad as originally feared, and CU is optimistic about a solid rebound this year.

CU’s most recent NCAA financial report, for the 2021 fiscal year (FY2021) showed a net loss of $17,477,532. The NCAA report includes some accounting differences due to definitions of certain revenues and expenses that they include that differ from CU’s actual budget. According to numbers provided to BuffZone.com, the athletic department actually operated at a loss of $18,070,532 for FY2021.

Throughout the first full school year of the pandemic (2020-21), CU athletic director Rick George had projected a deficit of $20 million or more. Several schools around the country reported deficits significantly larger, such as Utah ($31 million), Iowa ($42 million) and Rutgers ($73 million).

“At the end of the day, an $18 million deficit, in our eyes, was a success story for as much as you can call it that, especially in comparison to our peers,” said Cory Hilliard, CU’s senior associate athletic director for business operations.

CU is projecting a much better FY2022. The athletics budget for FY2022 includes revenue and expenses in the $89 million range, which is where the budget was prior to the pandemic.

“Our budget continues to perform on schedule,” George said earlier this month. “Our revenues are where they need to be and we’ve kept our expenses where they should be. We anticipate and expect that we will balance our budget again like we normally do, so I’m happy about that.”

CU generated about $21.5 million in football ticket sales and donations during the 2021 season.

CU also projects about $3.4 million in men’s and women’s basketball ticket sales, although the department did take about a $250,000 hit in tickets, concessions, parking, etc., when the men’s game against Kansas on Dec. 21 was canceled due to COVID-19 issues within the CU program.

CU’s FY2022 budget also includes a projected distribution of $37 million from the Pac-12.

While it will take some time for the Buffs to fully rebound from FY2021, Hilliard said CU is encouraged by the projections for this year.

“I think we’ve rebounded very strong,” he said.

Although FY2021 was not as bad as it could have been, it was still a difficult time for CU and its peers as they navigated an unprecedented year.

CU generated roughly $43.2 million in revenue for FY2021, a drop of about $46.7 million from the previous year. Much of that loss can be attributed to playing in empty stadiums and arenas and a reduced Pac-12 distribution.

Compared to FY2020, CU lost about $23.5 million in ticket sales, plus another $2.5 million in concessions, parking, etc.

“No ticket revenue at all, that hit us pretty hard,” Hilliard said.

With the Pac-12 playing shortened football and basketball seasons and having some games canceled, the conference didn’t meet contractual obligations with ESPN and Fox. That led to a conference distribution in FY2021 ($20.2 million) that was about $12.4 million less than the previous year.

Unable to host outside events, such as concerts, weddings, etc., led to a drop of another $2.9 million for CU.

The COVID-19 pandemic began to significantly impact college athletics in March of 2020. From that point, George and CU anticipated and planned for much of the financial impact from FY2021.

“I think we managed it to the best of our ability with cooperation from campus, our coaches that also took voluntary pay cuts,” Hilliard said. “Those were all things that together we worked to make this as positive an outcome as possible.”

Managing FY2021 led to CU making some tough decisions, however, with employee furloughs and layoffs and elimination of some positions. With coaches unable to recruit in person and games canceled, there was also a significant reduction in expenses related to recruiting, team travel and game-day operations.

“We had made concerted efforts the second the pandemic was realized and knowing we were going to go into this shutdown mode the first couple of months,” Hilliard said.

In addition, Hilliard said the CU campus restructured the debt for the entire university to help mitigate the financial hit in FY2021. That saved the athletic department about $12 million in its debt service payment for the Champions Center and other capital projects.

To cover the $18 million deficit, CU took advantage of the Pac-12’s COVID loan program. CU was the only school to take the loan, as others used other means to cover their debt, including help from their campuses. Taking the loan allowed CU to avoid adding to campus debt.

Hilliard said CU had “favorable lending rates” in taking out the seven-year loan, which will be repaid by the Pac-12 reducing CU’s conference distribution over the next seven years. CU hopes to save some money on interest by repaying the loan early.

“If we have the means to do that, we’d certainly pull that trigger,” he said.

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