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Southern Miss battles financial risks in return to fall sports during pandemic

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the nation, the return of collegiate sports is uncertain. For now, Southern Miss is still committed to play during this upcoming semester. In preparation for the fall sports season, though, Southern Miss faces unprecedented financial complications due to the virus.

“The plan as of today is for us to start our fall schedules on time and to play complete schedules,” Director of Athletics Jeremy McClain said. “We’re having discussions every day about what that looks like and we fully understand that every day that goes by, things could change.”

The situation has already proven to be constantly changing. Southern Miss is still searching for a replacement game for the prior scheduled football game versus Jackson State University due to the SWAC’s decision to postpone its season.

“I don’t suspect that will be the last adjustment we have to make, so we’re just trying to stay in communication with other people and different leagues, different programs, and move as quickly as we can when we need to,” McClain said. 

Southern Miss currently awaits the Southeastern Conference’s (SEC) decision on its sports season. The football team is scheduled to play Auburn University on Sep. 26 as the second and final game of a contract signed between the two schools in 2016. Southern Miss is set to receive a $1.85 million payment from Auburn from this game, which could be affected if the SEC decides to postpone its season or play on a conference-only schedule.

Chris Croft, an assistant professor of sports management, notes the potential loss of guaranteed games to the university. 

“If the non-conference games were wiped out, meaning either the SEC, Liberty or Conference USA wiped out those games, then you’re going to lose two games there, but more importantly, you’re going to lose $2.3 million in revenue[,] which is huge to support the football program [and]  the rest of Southern Miss Athletics[,] with their approximately $25 million budget,” Croft said.

Besides scheduling challenges, Southern Miss must also develop strategies on how to return during the virus. On the list of their priorities is whether or not to bring spectators back to sporting events.

“I believe right now that we’ll have some level of limited capacity. I don’t know what that number is yet and we’re working through that at the state, conference and local level to try to make sure we’ve got our number right,” McClain said. “We’ll obviously make sure that our season ticket holders are taken care of first and we’ll make sure our students are taken care of in a way that is safe and makes sense.” 

The decision to limit attendance will, consequently, lower revenue. Croft explains the financial consequences the decisions could have.

“From the athletic directors I’ve talked to, they are hopeful that they can have a facility at 50% capacity at max, and that still may be a lot,” Croft said. “When you start cutting your fans in half and you have a packed stadium, then you start cutting the revenue in half too from those ticket sales.”

According to the 2019 athletics budget, gate receipts and concessions sales at football games accounted for around a quarter of the total revenue brought in by the football team. 

“We’ve already taken significant steps to reduce our budget and we’ve been able to roll that back significantly already in anticipation of reduced revenues,” McClain said. “And depending on just how deep that reduction is will depend on how far down that path we have to go, as far as cutbacks are concerned.”

However, that all depends on the outlook of COVID-19. According to The New York Times, the average of coronavirus cases that Mississippi has reported this week, as of July 30, is 54% higher than the average two weeks earlier.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll see some progress here over the next few weeks, but there’s definitely concern I think from me and for anyone involved in college athletics that this is going to impact our ability to get where we want to be by early September,” McClain said.

McClain’s perspective on the virus was reflected in NCAA President Mark Emmert’s latest statements on July 28. According to ESPN, Emmert also said he was “very concerned” about starting the upcoming season. Said season includes a Southern Miss game versus Liberty University, which Southern Miss expects to earn $500,000 from.

A possible postponement from Conference USA or the NCAA would derail Southern Miss’s plans to play in the fall. However, McClain is confident that Southern Miss will find a way to play.

“I would be surprised if we didn’t play in some form or fashion, whether the worst-case scenario would be to play in the spring,” McClain said. “That’s not a desire and not necessarily what I think is going to happen, but that would be a last resort. So, I do think we’ve got several steps before saying, hey, we’re not going to play”.

Croft also believes Southern Miss sports should attempt to return in the fall.

“There’s no right answer, but I do think that people have to work ahead and open universities and play sports. We’re going to have to take it day by day,” Croft said. “There’s going to be hiccups along the way, but we’ve got to figure out how to keep everyone healthy.”
For more information on Southern Miss’ return to sports and to stay updated, visit www.southernmiss.com.

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