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College football in a COVID-19 world: Safety vs. Money

While morale may have impacted the decision to keep football going, the financial impact of football on athletic departments is clear.
Credit: AP
Louisville wide receiver Devante Peete (2) celebrates in the final minutes of Louisville's win over Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — While COVID-19 has caused major uncertainty for colleges across the country, both the ACC and SEC plan to kickoff their football seasons next month.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer at ESPN and cohost of Marty & McGee, said that while morale influenced the conferences' decision to move on with the season, the financial impact of football was an obvious factor.

"The money is a huge part of it," McGee said, "and operating expenses for every athletic department hinge on football."

That's clear when looking at the numbers. Around 26% of projected revenues of sports at the University of Kentucky comes from the football program. UK's athletic department budget is around $150 million, McGee said.

The University of Louisville expects around 39% of revenue to come from Cards football during the 2020/21 fiscal year.

"We forecasted a financial picture for next year that recognizes obviously some risk," Athletic Director Vince Tyra said of the University of Louisville Athletics Association projections.

Part of the risk stems from attendance, although the 61,000 seat Cardinal Stadium will be reducing capacity to just 30% this season — something Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear suggested might still be too high.

RELATED: Louisville plans for 30% capacity at home football games

As of Wednesday, football attendance at Kroger Field remained a question mark, even though most other SEC schools are looking at a range of 20 to 25% capacity.

"If you want as many people to attend at least one game as possible, there's going to have to be some sort of tiered system set up," McGee said.

What that will look like is still unclear, but Louisville projected more than $37 million in home games revenue, which is everything from tickets to concessions and parking. Factoring 30% attendance with an average of $2.5 million made at each game on UofL turf, the university now estimates it will fumble $10 million.

Meanwhile Kentucky projected nearly a $5.7 million loss in ticket sales back in June, but it's hard to really "tackle" how much home games will lose without knowing its capacity plan.

"Everything is so up in the air," McGee said. "I think that everything's written in pencil."

Another major blow to both Kentucky and Louisville fans alike is the absence of their rivalry game, result of tighter rules due to coronavirus concerns. According to Louisville athletics, that game would have likely added another $300,000 in revenue.

"That being off the calendar, that's a difficult pill to swallow, I think for all college football fans," McGee said.

RELATED: NCAA allows athletes to keep year of eligibility due to COVID-19

RELATED: Beshear says he will accept KHSAA's plan as students, coaches and parents rally for fall sports

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