Mizzou athletics, with COVID losses looming, continue to operate at a deficit

By Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk says he sees the light at the end of the fiscal tunnel after Mizzou athletics operated at a deficit for the fourth straight year.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Nearly one full year into the financial crisis brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, Mizzou athletics director Jim Sterk can see light at the end of the fiscal tunnel. He's bullish on Eli Drinkwitz's football program and optimistic that more fans will be able to attend football games this fall.

But before the coronavirus fully engulfed Mizzou's finances, halted seasons and nearly emptied home crowds, the department operated at a budget deficit for a fourth consecutive year despite again generating record revenues.

Mizzou athletics hauled in $110,189,122 in revenue from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020 for the 2020 fiscal year, according to MU's annual submission to the NCAA Membership Financial Reporting System, obtained by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Sunshine Law request.

That's a revenue increase of 3.4% from the previous year. MU had suffered a revenue drop in 2019. That's the good news.

Mizzou's athletics spending increased almost 10% in the 2020 fiscal year, up to a record total of $119,082,669. That produced a deficit of $8,893,547.

The revenue figures are sure to plummet next year as a result of decreased ticket sales and other revenue generators stemming from reduced crowd capacities at Memorial Stadium and Mizzou Arena. Though in the last year, since the pandemic's onset last March, the athletics department has curbed spending dramatically, to the point Sterk envisions more of a balanced budget for 2021.

"We're down about 45 positions (in the department)," he said Tuesday. "We're starting to add some of those back because ... having so many sports in the spring we couldn't function without replacing some of those. We eliminated incentives, we reduced salaries, we have essential spending only.

"We've done a lot," he added, "but I think what's hopeful is our 2021 renewals (for football season tickets) look strong. Eighty-five percent of our donors maintain their donor level from last year to this current year, even without their tickets. That has really helped, obviously."

"Overall," he added, "we're doing better than we thought as far as controlling expenses and really didn't know how travel would be impacted as much as it is. ... We think we have a shot at more of a balanced budget this year. But obviously with a lot of moving parts we don't know."

In the 2020 fiscal year, which included MU's 2019 football season, when the Tigers went 6-6 in Barry Odom's final season, Mizzou revenues for ticket sales in all sports dipped slightly to $16,124,731. MU also took in less revenue for guarantee fees for visiting teams, NCAA distributions and cash donations, though donations still eclipsed $25 million. In the last four years MU athletics has enjoyed four of its best five years in total fundraising, Sterk said.

The decreased NCAA distribution can be attributed to the cancellation of several NCAA championship events last spring, including the men's and women's basketball tournaments.

The school's media rights revenue through the Southeastern Conference media package increased by more than $2 million to $40.4 million.

MU was expected to take a major financial hit as part of its football postseason ban imposed by the NCAA, however Mizzou elected to defer that withholding of SEC bowl/playoff revenue for the 2021 fiscal year, deputy athletics director and chief financial officer Tim Hickman confirmed. For the 2020 fiscal year, Mizzou took in more than $9.1 million in SEC bowl/playoff revenue.

For the 2020 fiscal year, the football team's ticket sales revenue increased slightly to $9,573,361, while men's basketball ticket sales plunged more than 18% to $3,663,686.

As for spending, Mizzou saved costs in recruiting expenses, team travel, athlete meals, team camps, spirit squads and spent only slightly more on salaries for coaches and staff. MU didn't have to cover any football bowl expenses or bowl-related coaching bonuses while serving its NCAA postseason ban.

The NCAA's recruiting dead period, now in its 12th consecutive month and in effect through May, has greatly reduced spending as coaches are prohibited from leaving Columbia for recruiting trips nor can Mizzou host prospects on official recruiting visits.

"The budget folks are loving that," Sterk said, "because it doesn't allow that travel to occur."

MU paid more in severance packages, equipment and uniforms, medical insurance and significantly more for facility debt services. MU's overhead costs decreased by 20% due to the completion of the new football south end zone football stadium complex and the cancelation of spring sporting events. MU's other operating expenses, a nebulous category that accounts for some undefined costs, increased by $6.7 million due to payments for the new football stadium scoreboard, additional taxes and Odom's contract buyout.

For now, Mizzou is planning on a full stadium for football games this fall but will be agile in case COVID forces adjustments, like this past season when Memorial Stadium capacity was reduced to around 12,000.

"We'll have to pivot and adjust if we're not vaccinated enough and we don't have herd immunity by that time," Sterk said. "We can't do anything but plan on not limiting our sales. So we're excited. I think the progress that's been made especially in the last two, three weeks of the positive (cases) going down and hospitalizations going down, we're trending very well and hopeful that it even improves by the summer."