Conference USA basketball championship cancelled

WKU athletic director Todd Stewart speaks to members of the athletics staff on Thursday, March 12, 2020, at the Omni Hotel in Frisco. (Austin Anthony/photo@bgdailynews.com)

Despite having one of the lowest budgets in all of Conference USA, Western Kentucky’s athletic department has been able to maintain a high level of success – the Hilltoppers are the only Football Bowl Subdivision school that leads its conference in championships but ranks in the bottom 25 percent of its league in budget.

That budget got smaller Friday.

As part of $27 million in spending reductions in the university’s budget the Board of Regents approved Friday for the 2020-21 fiscal year, which is set to begin Wednesday, WKU’s athletic department will see a $1,060,834 reduction in its budget.

“It’s everybody, but certainly it’s us too. We’ll get through it. Our goal is for those numbers to get better, to keep winning championships, and I think it’s one of the best success stories in all of college athletics,” WKU athletics director Todd Stewart said in an interview with the Daily News. “To be (that successful) is pretty unusual and to be like that I think validates that we have some really talented and dedicated people here.”

WKU ranks 12th of the 14 C-USA schools in terms of athletic operating budget, but has won 27 C-USA championships since joining the league in July 2014 – nine more than the two teams ranked second in the category. WKU’s athletic operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year accounted for $21,717,198 of the school’s $353,210,347 budget. The average athletic operating budget in C-USA is roughly $27.5 million.

The athletic program has faced over $7 million in budget reductions since 2012, which included a $365,915 reduction last year and a $1.1 million reduction in 2018. WKU has had four sports programs eliminated due to the budget cuts and now sits at the NCAA minimum of 16.

WKU’s student athletic fee revenue had decreased from $4,516,081 in the 2011-12 fiscal year to $3,636,236 in the 2018-19 fiscal year. Of the 12 schools in C-USA that receive funds from student fees, WKU’s athletic fee revenue is the second-lowest. Stewart is hopeful that amount, tied directly with enrollment, will increase in the future thanks to “aggressive outreach” from university personnel, led by president Timothy Caboni, that he says has been in the works for a couple of years now.

“Well, the tough thing about it is it’s just been a way of life for us. It really has,” Stewart said. “Every year since 2012 – and I was named the athletic director May of 2012 – our student fee money has gone down and with that, coupled with the other reductions, we have over $7 million in reductions.

“The fortunate thing is in the areas that we control directly, we’ve been able to grow. We’ve grown our private donations. We’ve grown our ticket sales. Our success has had a lot to do with that, but where we’ve taken a step back financially in some areas, we’ve grown in others. That’s how we’ve been able to continue to be relevant and be competitive.”

WKU is implementing salary reductions as part of the school’s plan to reduce the budget. The Board of Regents authorized Friday tiered salary reductions for faculty and staff to address $2.4 million in cuts. Under the new plan, employees with salaries of $100,000 to $148,000, for example, would see an across-the-board cut of at least 4 percent, while those making more than $148,000 annually would take a 10 percent cut. Those paid $50,000 or less would see no pay cuts at all. WKU’s athletic department has 89 full-time employees, with 58 percent receiving a salary less than $50,000.

The highest paid members of WKU’s athletic program – Stewart, football coach Tyson Helton and men’s basketball coach Rick Stansbury – voluntarily took a 10 percent salary reduction in April in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The three separate salary cuts to Stewart, Stansbury and Helton totaled $172,000. With the adjustment, Helton’s salary of $800,000, before bonuses and incentives, reduced to $720,000 annually. Stansbury’s $650,000 salary decreased to $585,000 and Stewart’s annual salary dropped from $270,000 annually to $243,000. The reductions came from total salaries between state and private fundraising.

Six assistants on the football staff were listed among 17 WKU employees to receives salary raises, according to a May proposal. The money used to provide the increase was a re-allocation of funds already in the salary pool for assistant coaches and no new funds from the state budget were used for the increases.

“The whole university is facing this. It’s not just athletics,” Stewart said. “And really, the whole country is facing this. On one hand it hurts a lot to have another million dollar reduction on top of everything else that we’ve had, but if you look around the country at what? I think at one point there were 42 million people unemployed and there are millions more that have taken salary reductions. That’s just something that we’re all facing right now and certainly within our campus it’s a shared sacrifice.”

In addition to salary reductions, Stewart said the athletic department is “looking at everything we do.” Stewart believes that with new protocols within the conference often calling for fewer games in many sports, travel budgets will decrease, and is also hopeful to receive more money through private support.

“There’s no easy way to get there, and when you’ve had as many cuts as we’ve had, the easy cuts have been made. We’re kind of cutting into bone now,” Stewart said. “But everybody has rolled up their sleeves, everybody’s had a great attitude in going about it. There won’t be one way to get there, but I think through a combination of a number of things and looking at every area in every sport program, we will ultimately get there.”

Stewart pointed to the football team’s schedule as an example of reduced travel. Instead of four chartered flights like normal, he says, the team will have just two this season – to Charlotte and Florida Atlantic. Football accounts for the largest portion of WKU’s 2020-21 athletic budget at $6,945,397, but is projected to bring in $1,135,000 in ticket sales – the largest amount among the department’s programs – and $200,000 in club level seats. Stewart also spoke of the need to schedule nonconference games that provide guaranteed money, like future matchups currently lined up against Michigan State, Auburn, Ohio State, Alabama, LSU and Georgia.

WKU’s future nonconference opponents are:

  • 2020 – Chattanooga (Sept. 5), at Indiana (Sept. 12), Liberty (Sept. 19), at Louisville (Sept. 26)
  • 2021 – UT-Martin (Sept. 4), at Army (Sept. 11), Indiana (Sept. 25), at Michigan State (Oct. 2)
  • 2022 – Austin Peay (Aug. 27), at Hawaii (Sept. 3), at Indiana (Sept. 17), Troy (Oct. 1), at Auburn (Nov. 19)
  • 2023 – South Florida (Sept. 2), Houston Baptist (Sept. 9), at Ohio State (Sept. 16), at Troy (Sept. 23)
  • 2024 – at Alabama (Aug. 31), EKU (Sept. 7), at South Florida (Sept. 21)
  • 2025 – at Liberty (Sept. 6), Cincinnati (Sept. 20), at LSU (Nov. 22)
  • 2026 – at Georgia (Sept. 12), at Cincinnati (Sept. 26)

“We will have to, as part of our budget, play a game where we’re getting a million and a half to a million-nine every year, but we don’t play it only because of the money. The money is a big part of it, but we also get great exposure from that. And you also have an opportunity to get a signature win. We have been able to get some of those,” said Stewart, who feels last season’s win at Arkansas marked the best program – not team – WKU has beaten.

“ ... What you hope is you obviously have a nice payday, you get some exposure for your players and your program, they get noticed by people, including NFL scouts, and if you can get a win too, then it’s truly a great deal.”

According to a study completed by Joyce Julius and Associates, the program also garnered nearly $35 million in media exposure from the turnaround 9-4 season last fall, WKU announced Thursday.

In a plan to reduce travel, C-USA is cutting its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments from 12 teams to eight, and the conference will not use the bonus play format moving forward. The conference, which stretches from El Paso, Texas, to Norfolk, Va., is in a contract to play the tournament at The Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas, through next season. Several conference schools have been rumored to want to host after the current contract expires, and Nashville has also been rumored as a possible destination for the tournament. WKU would be unable to host, according to Stewart, because of a facility requirement of having two arenas to play the men’s and women’s tournaments simultaneously. The 2020 C-USA Tournament was canceled March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Due to the NCAA Basketball Tournaments not being played, college sports’ governing body will distribute just $225 million to Division-I schools, a figure that was supposed to be $600 million. The trickle down from Power Five to Group of Five means a significant financial loss that forces leagues like C-USA to make competition decisions in its best financial interest.

The C-USA volleyball tournament will be reduced from eight teams to four with the No. 1 seed hosting. Soccer, softball and baseball tournaments will remain at eight teams, but the number of their conference regular-season games will be reduced.

In a February interview with the Daily News, Stewart said he hoped the league would be more “proactive and strategic in the placement of games.”

While believing the current package provides unique exposure opportunities, he said in the February interview the league should be more attentive to the flow of the season and flex scheduling for the best matchups, rather than sticking to preseason scheduling.

Conference USA’s current television deal is divided through CBS Sports Network, Stadium and ESPN+ through 2023. The league’s 14 member schools brought in around $400,000 in TV revenue in 2018-19, with most of its games being accessible through free streaming services via Facebook on mobile devices.

The league’s championship games in football and men’s and women’s basketball are nationally broadcast by CBS Sports Network, a channel only available through certain cable packages.

“Each school in the league, when we entered, was getting about $1.1 million in television revenue, then it went down to about $200,000 per school and now it’s about between $300,000-400,000 per school,” Stewart said. “It’s going up, but our hope is when this deal expires and we get a new deal, that trend line keeps going up as well and there’s a little more revenue involved.”

While several unknowns still exist about what athletics will look like in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic – concerns surround contact between opposing teams and audience limitations, for example – Stewart believes the 2020-21 season could be special for WKU’s athletic programs, despite facing over $1 million in budget cuts.

“I think we’ve got a lot of really dedicated, talented people who are excellent at maximizing their resources and we’ve got a lot of athletes that are just very driven to succeed. They’ve all done exactly what they came here to do, and that’s to compete for and win championships, and in doing so they’ve established a culture so even though we have budget challenges, any new person that comes in here comes into this winning culture and they know what the expectations are,” he said. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to build on that.”

– Education reporter Aaron Mudd contributed to this story. Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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