WKU football opening game

WKU fans cheer during their 35-28 loss to Central Arkansas on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, at Houchens-Smith Stadium. (Austin Anthony/photo@bgdailynews.com)

The math is simple – fewer fans at games means less revenue generated in ticket sales.

Western Kentucky’s athletic department is preparing for budget shortfalls, though it is not quite known what exactly the amount will be yet.

“We’re working through that right now. We will certainly have some budget shortfalls just because of the situation with fans in the stands. There’s some decisions that we’ll have to make. The degree of that will depend on what the 2020-21 season looks like, not only for football, but for everything else. We’re certainly running projections and have already run them in terms of what it might look like from a revenue standpoint due to, right now, crowds being in the 25% range,” WKU athletics director Todd Stewart said in an Aug. 27 Zoom conference, one week before the announcement of 20% capacity attendance for the school’s Sept. 19 football home opener.

“Hopefully things improve and that increases, but we’re going to plan for the worst and, as a result, we’ll certainly have to make some decisions in the weeks and months ahead beyond what we already have. We’ve already done a number of things over the last couple of years and even over the last six months, but we’ll have to do more.”

As part of $27 million in spending reductions approved in June for the 2020-21 fiscal year, WKU’s athletic department saw a $1,060,834 reduction to its budget. WKU’s athletic budget accounted for $21,717,198 of the school’s $353,210,347 budget, roughly $6 million less than the $27.5 million average athletic operating budget among Conference USA schools. Since 2012, the athletics budget has faced more than $7 million in reductions and the athletic department now has the NCAA minimum of 16 sports after eliminating four programs because of cuts.

WKU said Thursday that Houchens-Smith Stadium would have a 20% capacity limit for home games, with fewer than 5,000 fans total and a minimum of 1,000 seats held for students.

Matt Morrison, WKU’s associate athletic director for marketing and ticket sales and executive director of the Hilltopper Athletic Foundation, spoke on the 26th episode of WKU’s “Beyond The Hill” podcast, which was released Monday, about plans for football attendance. Morrison said WKU typically has 8,000 season-ticket holders and averages around 4,000 students per game – more earlier in the season and fewer later. He said WKU is currently looking at around 3,500 season-ticket holders and 1,000 students, which would allow a small amount of tickets for internal needs like player guests and visiting team allotments.

WKU is not selling single-game tickets and what were ticket booths before will be customer service booths to help with the transition to 100% mobile ticketing, according to Morrison. There will also be mask and temperature check requirements to enter the stadium, and Morrison said WKU will be doubling or tripling its staff to keep it sanitized.

The department has started working with season-ticket holders and is using the HAF priority ranking system to reseat people so they are socially distanced, and Morrison said they plan on having that finalized by the end of the week. Morrison said the process is similar to what the department does in postseason play or any other reseating project.

“The Harbaugh Club went from 900 tickets up there to 180 tickets. Those are tough conversations of where those folks want to move to,” Morrison said on the podcast. “If they’re not in the Harbaugh Club, do they want a refund? Do they want to opt out? Do they want to move that credit to next season? There’s a lot of questions with every single account, so it’s not an easy, quick process, but our fans have been great so far and we hope to have that finished up in the next couple of days.”

Morrison said WKU is looking at attendance in phases. WKU followed along with Louisville City FC when it began playing in July, and later Churchill Downs – which was originally planning to run Saturday’s Kentucky Derby with limited spectators but later changed plans. WKU also worked with Kentucky and Louisville to submit similar plans for football, and Morrison said plans started at 50% capacity and were incrementally decreased until it reached the 20% capacity approved last week.

Following the Sept. 19 game against Liberty, WKU doesn’t play at Houchens-Smith Stadium again until its Oct. 10 homecoming game against Marshall – a three-week break – and the department is hopeful attendance will be able to increase during that timeframe.

The budget will also largely depend on what happens with basketball season, and what percentage WKU can fill the 7,523-capacity E.A. Diddle Arena. Morrison said that conversation starts with what the schedule will look like, which is still unclear. He said if capacity limits don’t change, there’s a good chance the first few rows of seats will have to be removed to follow social distancing guidelines.

“The schedule will start the conversation to what we’re going to do,” Morrison said. “As far as the seating, it’s just a different conversation than what we’re having with football because we have a perfect basketball arena, but unfortunately it’s not social-distance friendly.”

The projected revenue for ticket sales in the 2020-21 fiscal year for football was $1,135,000, and $200,000 from football club-level seats, according to the budget, with $1,111,000 combined between men’s and women’s basketball ticket sales and $25,000 total in athletic ticket surcharges. Athletic concessions were also projected to generate $205,000 in the 2020-21 fiscal year.

“Hopefully after Liberty – we’ve got three or four weeks before our next home game – we’ll be able to go up to 30 or 40 or 50% capacity,” Morrison said. “The potential for revenue loss is a significant amount, depending on what happens with basketball.

“ ... But the 20% capacity does put us in a situation (where) there could be major financial implications for us. I think if you look at a lot of your Group of Five schools, some of them have projected anywhere from $2 million to $8-10 million of potential revenue loss, and it all depends on what does basketball season look like? How many football games can we play? 20% capacity? 50%? No fans? There’s a lot of moving pieces, but right now we’re definitely going to feel it.”

Conference USA said Aug. 31 it would require testing football student-athletes three times per week, and Morrison said on the podcast that WKU will probably be looking at “anywhere from $500,000 to $750,000 in just COVID testing with those expenses.”

Changes in WKU’s football schedule have also changed guaranteed money. The Hilltoppers were able to keep Louisville on the schedule and will open the season at Cardinal Stadium on Saturday in a game with $600,000 guaranteed. WKU was originally scheduled to play at Indiana that day in the first of a three-game series in a game with $550,000 guaranteed, but the game was canceled with the Big Ten’s decision not to play football this fall. Stewart said in the Aug. 27 Zoom he didn’t have any updates he could share at that time, but he was “very encouraged by the dialogue” with Indiana athletics director Scott Dolson and that it was “definitely going in a good direction.”

WKU added a game at BYU in place of Old Dominion on Oct. 31 after the Monarchs canceled fall sports, and that game comes with $475,000 guaranteed, according to a copy of the game contract obtained by the Daily News.

Stewart said in a Zoom conference July 16 that WKU already had conversations with key donors about helping in ways they hadn’t before, and credited the HAF for its past support and help when needed. Morrison also said WKU was creating the Tops Together Recovery Fund that will directly support increased costs of COVID-19 testing and staffing to ensure sanitation of facilities.

“What I would say is it’s not just a Western Kentucky issue,” Stewart said in the July 16 Zoom. “The financial aspects of this are nationwide. There’s a lot of schools going through this.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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