For a mid-major Division I athletic department like Montana State, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a situation never experienced before. Bobcat Athletics is normally a top financial performer compared to colleges with similar athletic departments. In fact, MSU football alone ranked second in overall earnings, both received and via generated revenue, last fiscal year amongst FCS schools, just behind east coast power James Madison University. The Cats’ athletic department as a whole pulled in $22.7 million in 2019, while Bobcat football generated $8.7 million in 2019 alone. For comparison, the University of Idaho, Eastern Washington University and plenty of other schools, rather than operating at a loss, fight to just break even during an academic year.
Bobcat football places a lot of attention on Bozeman and plays a large part in MSU’s success. Games regularly draw crowds of over 19,000 fans into our beloved corner of the state to spend money on tickets, concessions and merchandise. This year, with the absence of fall sports, MSU is facing a new challenge in how to sustain our highly competitive athletic department. However, as COVID-19 has already shown us, things can change quickly, and our financial health is in a fluid state.
For starters, there has been a sharp decrease in generated revenue ever since the virus hit our country. Already, MSU lost around $300,000 when the NCAA basketball tournaments were cancelled this spring. The football team was expected to reel in $675,000 from their out-of-conference away game at the University of Utah this season, which has now been called off.
MSU athletic director Leon Costello acknowledged this past spring that the Cats are sure to take a hit this year, but it’s looking even more dire as we begin the fall semester. Honoring scholarships alone is now becoming a daunting task. The NCAA said this past spring that they would honor any athlete’s personal choice to return for another chance at a senior season. Costello said that the handful of scholarships from last spring, which MSU plans on continuing to honor, would have “little to no consequences” on the overall budget. But now, with fall sports postponed by the Big Sky Conference and those student athletes granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, this is a much different set of issues. If all eligible players return, the football team could have as many as 44 seniors in the fall of 2021, not to mention multiple volleyball and cross country athletes who could also return. Up to this point, the main response has been to limit spending and to ask for more donations in order to support these student athletes. This issue is bigger than the department alone and will be a true test for the Bobcat community.
Figuring out the athletic department's fiscal future is nearly impossible this early in the season. With sports on hold until the winter, uncertainty is at a high in Bozeman. All we can do is be proactive in limiting COVID-19 cases as much as possible by social distancing and wearing masks. It’s up to us to continue to support our athletic department through these challenging times. Just like in the past, the toughest challenges will help define the future of our great athletics program.