Facing uncertainty posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kansas’ athletic department has already trimmed $8 million out of its upcoming fiscal year budget, a measure not unlike those being taken at other institutions throughout the U.S.
However, as KU athletic director Jeff Long stressed Tuesday, response to the virus is likely to vary on a university-by-university, county-by-county and state-by-state basis.
"I’m optimistic. I think that many schools will get through the season, but some won’t. The truth will be somewhere between that," said Long, speaking alongside Missouri counterpart Jim Sterk at a forum hosted by the Kansas City Public Library. "Again I go back to, we don’t know. We’re not in control; the virus is, when it comes to how it impacts our teams."
How the virus will affect KU’s own upcoming seasons is slowly coming into focus.
Long said KU has projected potential attendance threshold models for both David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium and Allen Fieldhouse that range from full to 20% capacities. And while nothing is set in stone yet, the fans who do make it into those venues could experience more changes, with Long acknowledging face masks may be required for entry — "I would think our fans should expect to wear a mask. I think that would be a reasonable expectation from what we know now," he said.
Long identified early August as the latest KU can wait before deciding on whether it will adopt any facility capacity limitations. By then, though, he’s hoping to have more information at his disposal.
"We’re getting pressured now for answers, ‘What’s it going to be?’ " Long said. "Well the answer is we don’t know, and we won’t know until we’re closer to that Sept. 5 starting date to know what our stadiums are going to look like as far as entry and (how many) fans."
KU welcomed close to 90 members of its football team back to campus Monday for voluntary workouts, an encouraging sight for Long but one that also presents more uncertainty — "We don’t know what the impact of practicing closed quarters, hitting, tackling, all those things will have on a team," he said.
"So I think things are positive, but they’re far from certain that we will get this season started on Sept. 5," Long continued. "I think it’s more likely that some teams will start and some teams won’t, and we’ll see people during the season have to miss a game. So I think all of those scenarios have been played out at all of our conferences — I know the (Power Five) conferences are talking almost daily.
"A lot is unknown, but I would say that it’s positive at this point. We’re moving in a positive direction."
Football typically represents 75% to 80% of an athletic department’s budget. While that is mostly tied to revenue from TV contracts, it doesn’t mean the number is entirely safe — differing approaches to handling the virus and varying outbreak intensity at certain hot spots could limit or eliminate opponents already on teams’ schedules.
To offset any potential lost games, Long said conferences could ultimately opt to schedule teams to face some of their league opponents multiple times, creating what would be virtually unprecedented in-season rematches.
"There's a lot of scenarios being explored," Long said. "And again at the end of the day on June 16, we don't know. But we're certainly planning and spending a lot of time, effort and energy planning for the unknown."
KU’s current fiscal year ends June 30. Long noted the shutdown of collegiate athletics had a limited impact on those books — most of the department’s revenue for the year had been secured by the time the Big 12 Tournament was canceled, and the spring sports that would’ve followed all represent expenses rather than revenue-drivers.
The upcoming fiscal year is a different story. KU is projecting 15% to 20% in lost revenue for that 12-month period, and that’s only if the football and men’s basketball seasons run uninterrupted.
Still, Long reiterated there’s reason for optimism.
He is hopeful the Power Five conferences will have agreed to uniform testing guidelines by the time football season kicks off, though he noted those talks remain ongoing. Advancements in less-expensive, less-invasive testing procedures also intrigue Long, who agreed further development there could make testing all players three times a week a reasonable ask.
When it comes to those players, Long said it’s obvious they want to compete. It’s the institution’s responsibility, he added, to keep them as safe as possible.
"However, there is risk, and we’ve clearly spelled that out to our student athletes and their parents. There is risk," Long said. "There is some point you need to accept that risk. If you don’t then you can choose not to participate. That’s not what we’re seeing in our young people. …
"We think that we can keep them safe and we believe that we’ll do everything in our power to reduce that risk."
Social justice conversations ’ongoing’
Long also discussed the civil unrest that’s followed the death of George Floyd, a black man who died on May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee to his neck for more than eight minutes.
That "senseless death," as Long labeled it, has spurred ongoing conversations between KU administrators and coaches and their student-athletes on important social justice issues.
"In my career that’s almost 40 years now, I think intercollegiate athletics, much like a lot of our society, we respond to the crisis, we get energized, we take some steps, but then things fade away," Long said. "… My commitment was we need to set a framework that lasts, an infrastructure that lasts so that it doesn’t fade away with time when the memory of George Floyd fades for us. We need to make sure that doesn’t fade."
One "actionable step" the athletic department is considering is fostering a working relationship with the university’s law enforcement training center, where athletes can help trainees better understand people of color and individuals from diverse backgrounds.
"I think our young people are more sophisticated today and they’re going to want to speak out, and we shouldn’t try to quell that, in my opinion," Long said. "Now we want to guide them, we want to educate them, we want to try to help them express themselves in a way that is socially acceptable. But they need to be able to express themselves."