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Prairie View teams keep playing despite uncertain budget during pandemic

Men’s and women’s basketball goes on while the school prepares for spring football

College sports programs are looking ahead and starting to plan out how to pick up the pieces COVID-19 will leave behind. Among them is Prairie View A&M University. Its athletic department is actively searching for ways to make up for the financial losses the pandemic has caused.

Football and men’s basketball are the two most popular and profitable sports on Prairie View’s campus, having a direct impact on revenue streams and the athletics budget. With football season condensed and moved to the spring and the loss of several “guarantee games” in basketball, the ripple effect is profound.

The athletic department’s revenue comes from a mix of athletic and student fees, ticket and concession sales, donations, fundraising, sponsorships and university financial support that aids in operational fees and scholarships.

According to Prairie View’s 2020 fiscal operating budget, football and men’s basketball were expected to bring in the most revenue. Football was projected to bring in $2.166 million in revenue, with $1.366 million to cover salaries, operating and maintenance costs, and scholarships. Men’s basketball was projected to bring in $639,435 in revenue, with $496,045 in costs.

This fiscal year the revenues are expected to drop because of the pandemic. While exact expenditures and revenue numbers are still fluid, one obvious change will be a decrease in ticket and concession sales. Due to no fan attendance at home games, the upcoming budget will experience a loss in a category that was previously regarded as a steady stream of revenue.

Some ‘guarantee’ games go on

One of the toughest hits to the athletic budget is the loss of revenue from guarantee games.

Games against Power 5 teams, such as Washington State, Louisville and Missouri, offer benefits for both schools involved, with the larger school securing a home game and the smaller school receiving a monetary benefit and a chance at facing competition at a higher level. The men’s team lost at Louisville on Nov. 29, and games at Missouri and Washington State remain on the schedule for Dec. 18 and Dec. 21.

When it comes to these matchups, which can often reach an upward of $100,000 in revenue, PVAMU athletic director Donald Reed says staying connected is key to getting the deals done.

“Quite a bit of it is about relationships and connectivity,” Reed said. “You have to be in the knowing and in the circle in order to make those deals happen. It can be a tough, arduous task to complete, and it’s a fluid situation. Basketball is year to year, but football is a little more stable, I would say, because with football we schedule [four to seven] years ahead.”

In the spring, Prairie View’s football team will play a condensed schedule that only features Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) matchups, cutting out two guarantee games the Panthers had set for this fall. The men’s basketball team has missed out on one guarantee game, a matchup against Northwestern that would’ve brought in around $97,000. Two other games were also canceled, against Western Kentucky and Grand Canyon.

“The most successful people in life are the ones that are able to make adjustments. This is a tough adjustment for all of us. … But the ones that are the most disciplined are the ones who are going to come out on top.” – Men’s basketball coach Byron Smith

Men’s basketball coach Byron Smith says potential revenue is important, but the protection of student-athletes is always first priority when it comes to fielding guarantee opportunities.

“I won’t say that I’m afraid to play against anyone, but I’m very cautious,” Smith said. “You do have to generate revenue. It is mandated by the department and the institution to bring in certain amounts of money. We try to make it as cost-effective as we possibly can. It’s better for us to try to play against regional conferences, but at the same time be able to bring in certain money to meet the requirement that’s been placed upon us. Obviously, you want to protect your team. I don’t think any team in the country is going to be as good on day one as they are a month or three weeks into the season. So we try to get the best quality competition. We go out and we try to win, but sometimes teams are going to be a little bigger or a little stronger.

“There’s regional schools, where we can go get a nice check and also have the chance to be competitive. But the goal is to go out and compete against the best competition we can get. Revenue is important, and obviously we’re going to go out and try to bring in what we bring in, but the goal is to protect our team with the opportunity to be competitive.”

The financial requirements placed on various teams vary from year to year and often depend on the funding model put in place that season. Most of the money generated is used to pay off debt and finance multiple sports.

The loss of home-game revenue is another problem. Because of the cancellation of in-person attendance at home games and no real student presence on campus, the athletic department is losing money that comes from ticket sales, ticket memberships, concessions and other operational revenue streams.

What fills the financial gaps?

According to Prairie View chief financial officer Cynthia Carter-Horn, canceling sports and missing out on key revenue opportunities leaves the athletic department depending on tuition fees and fixed amounts that have been set aside.

“Because a lot of the athletic teams rely on guarantees, if they lose that revenue, it hurts them. It’s pretty much relying upon designated tuition and some fees that have been set aside for the debt service on some of the facilities like the stadium, for example,” Carter-Horn said. “That was funded through debt and through product gifts. So being able to accumulate the revenue from the student fees for the athletic fee to go back into the athletic program is going to be key.”

After the athletic budget has been split up among various teams, deciding how to spend team funding often leads to a balancing act between team upkeep, saving for a rainy day and giving players the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Coaches are determined to give their players the best Division I experience possible while staying fiscally responsible. This means that players are given the best gear, stay at the best hotels, eat quality food and travel comfortably. Yet, they also keep in mind financial needs such as equipment maintenance, uniform renewals, supplies and other items that require money.

For football, making sure players have the best experiences is often a nod to Texas culture, where the sport reigns supreme.

Football coach Eric Dooley said it’s important for players in all of Prairie View’s programs to represent themselves at the highest level.

“We’re in Texas,” Dooley said. “These young men come from some great programs. They have college-type facilities at their high schools. Their schools are nice, their uniforms and things that they get are nice. That’s the experience. That’s what you go against. During recruiting, you have some guys saying what they have and what you don’t have. For the whole department, anytime any of our players take the court, the field, or wherever, we represent our university to the highest level with the way that we present ourselves.”

However, this may be more difficult this year with COVID-19 testing and safety precautions requiring funding and resources, shrinking the size of both the athletic department’s and the university’s budgets.

COVID-19’s impact on campuses

Prairie View’s student health center has been closely monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak and has put numerous efforts in place to mitigate it on campus. For student-athletes and the general population, regular testing has been made available and extensive sanitizing efforts have been put in place around campus. A COVID-19 hotline has also been activated, where students can call if they’re experiencing symptoms or have tested positive.

Carter-Horn says there has been a significant amount of money spent on testing for both student-athletes and the general population, a large portion going toward bringing wellness services and testing to campus.

“The student health center has taken the initiative to bring in a contract for [Houston Methodist Hospital]. So Methodist was on campus at the start of the fall semester, and will be coming back in the spring to provide testing for students as well as test our athletes as part of NCAA requirements,” said Carter-Horn.

Along with financial deficits, Reed said COVID-19 has had a significant impact on sports culture and student experiences on Prairie View’s campus.

“Aside from the lost opportunity to compete, the student experience – and I say student intentionally, not only student-athletes – of not having fall sports definitely had a financial impact for sure, but I would also say it had a mental and emotional impact that you can’t put a price tag on,” said Reed. “The morale, the energy on campus and the engagement processes amongst our student-athletes and coaches [is different]. It’s been very virtual and not as interactive as it would normally be.”

Caleb Coleman (left) of the Prairie View Panthers dribbles against Myles Cale (right) of the Seton Hall Pirates at Prudential Center on Dec. 22, 2019, in Newark, New Jersey. It was one of seven “guarantee” games Prairie View played last season.

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

There have been a few bright spots in the midst of this year’s unpredictable circumstances.

The first being that despite financial losses affecting Prairie View and other campuses around the SWAC, Prairie View has not had to lay off any employees as a direct result of COVID-19, something coaches and administrators are thankful for.

Both fall and winter student-athletes have been granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, whether they decide to opt in or out this year.

Moving forward, Reed said, Prairie View will attempt to make up some of its financial losses in the next few weeks through fundraising and the generosity of donors and sponsors.

“The first thing we’re embarking on here in the next few weeks is a fundraising campaign to raise funds for primarily the revenue losses and testing for our student-athletes to continue to do what they love to do,” Reed said. “We’re also building some fundraising campaigns for specific sports. Each sport has a development account that we want to maximize by increasing the understanding of what these donations go towards and how we could provide a great student-athlete experience for our Panthers of all of our sports.

“We’re always, of course, looking for opportunities from a sponsorship standpoint, which also helps the revenue side and helps provide resources to our student-athletes, so there are quite a few things that are coming soon to all of our fans as well as our donors and alumni that ask to support us in our endeavors of providing a great experience for our student-athletes.”

As the department looks to 2021, the priority is to keep student-athletes safe. Prairie View plans to keep its current testing protocol in place until the country returns to a degree of normalcy.

But for right now, Prairie View student-athletes, coaches and staff are focused on making sure players are in the right space mentally as they prepare for their upcoming seasons.

“The most successful people in life are the ones that are able to make adjustments,” Smith said. “This is a tough adjustment for all of us. Coaches, players, administrators and educators. But the ones that are the most disciplined are the ones who are going to come out on top.”

Jayla Jones, a junior business management major from Chicago is a game and feature writer for the Prairie View A&M athletics department. She has written for the student newspaper, The Panther, and enjoys telling athletes’ stories.