Colorado’s universities are preparing for a catastrophic drop in enrollment if football and fall sports are cancelled

Thunderbowl Stadium at Colorado State University - Pueblo (PULP Colorado)

“Can you imagine losing 40% of your student population? That’d be tough,” said Larry Mortensen, athletic director at Adams State University.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact Colorado, universities question what the fall may look like for their student-athletes. Fans may worry about the stadiums doing dark or watching live streams from home. But athletic directors see a looming enrollment and revenue crash.

For Adams State University, founded to provide teachers to rural Colorado in 1921, nestled into Alamosa, Colo., population 10,000 – a 40% drop in enrollment could be devastating. 

In the 2019-2020 school year, Adams State had 1,908 undergraduates and 1,147 graduate students. If Mortenson’s dire projections turn out to be right and COVID-19 prevents fall sports, the university could see over 700 students not return over COVID-19. 

The real fear goes beyond just tickets and vendor sales at games as regional comprehensive universities have seen years of lagging enrollment numbers. 

At “teacher colleges” the enrollment drop is substantial. From 2007 to 2016, schools around the nation like Adams State have experienced a 23% drop in enrollment.

While the threat of a catastrophic loss in students is real, schools aren’t taking chances with COVID-19 just to get athletics back. 

Mortenson wants Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) fall sports to return but only if they can keep their student-athletes and athletic staff safe. 

 “Our main goal is to get them on campus, then get them competing. Fans are secondary.” said Mortensen. “Personally, my opinion is it’s all going to come down to testing.”

According to Mortensen, the decisions about the fall will be made on a case by case basis — school by school or conference by conference. 

There will be some major changes, however, to the RMAC if it returns. California DII schools, for example, will not be playing in the fall. But Mortenson said everyone is working towards the “common goal” of having a season.

Jackie Wallgren, deputy director of athletics for CSU-Pueblo said they are “operating under the assumption” that they will have a fall sports season but everyone will have to be ready to make changes as they present themselves. 

Wallgren fears should the fall season be limited or nonexistent, some student athletes may decide to wait until the following year to compete.

The university has already seen an enrollment drop of 3.8% for this coming fall according to CSU Pueblo Director of Athletics, Paul Plinske, despite having a higher online summer-school enrollment.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we won’t exceed 10%,” Plinske said.

CSU-Pueblo has planned for a drop in sports revenue in the event of a limited season. Plinske said the athletic department is budgeting for a $175,000 decline from the $300,000 they would normally see. 

The university expects student-athletes to return to campus for voluntary training on June 1st, but will yield to the direction of Pueblo health officials. 

CSU Pueblo scheduled twenty-two summer camps in July and August, which will serve as their test for the fall, but is still waiting for the approval of the local government, Plinske added.

‘We are waiting for the governor to provide an executive order for how to handle the interaction of individuals… and maintain physical distancing,” he said. 

Above all, Plinske said their first goal as an organization is to “get back to some kind of normal.”

The university announced in June, the CSU Board of Governors were able to agree to a budget that won’t “require a tuition increase, pay cuts, furloughs, or employee layoffs.”

Like other RMAC schools, University of Colorado Colorado Springs is deeply worried how it will navigate through COVID-19.

Nathan Gibson, UCCS’ Executive Director of Athletics tells the same story as Adams and CSU-Pueblo both competitors in the RMAC. He is concerned about losing students and missing ancillary revenue like fees, ticket sales and sponsorships.

Nevertheless, he said the school has every intention of resuming athletics in the fall.

“We have looked at many possibilities and are working with colleagues in the conference and NCAA to plan for many different scenarios,” Gibson said. “As the saying goes, we will plan for the worst and hope for the best … and be prepared for whatever comes our way.”. 

According to Gibson, the current conversation in DII Athletics is framed by the NCAA’s decision to reduce the number of required competitions in the fall. As of now, the NCAA will allow for a fall season, but said their mission is to protect the health and safety of college student athletes. 

In addition to a change in competition guidelines, the NCAA has released a set of core principles for resocialization of collegiate athletics, in which they outline the requirements for return to sport. 

The requirements include adequate immunity testing and diagnostic testing at a regional and local level, sufficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for athletic care providers, and reliable risk analysis within the athletic department, among other requirements.

But up at University of Colorado at Boulder, even if fall sports do compete without crowds, the loss of revenue from a lack of football spectators would impact funding for the other 17 sports on campus. 

“Everyone in the sports world is preparing to return but with either no fans or a very limited number,” said David Plati, Media Relations Director for the CU Athletics.

Physical distancing could see a Saturday afternoon at Folsom Field three-quarters empty and that means big dollars for the program.

“Lost ticket revenue and rights fee could easily add into the millions.” said Plati.

Just the student athletic pass alone would cost the university. For example, in 2019, if none of the 35,528 CU students had bought athletic passes, the school would’ve lost over a million dollars, which could be the case this fall.

What worries CU is how the losses of a season without fans adds up — from lost ticket sales, to possible broadcast rights revenue as well as revenue from parking and concessions — all of it adds up to money not going to other sports.

The CEO’s of the PAC-12 conference voted to start athletic training on June 15th. An official decision about fall sports has not yet been made, and is still too fluid a subject to predict, Plati said.

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