Cal Expects Football Return to Help Balance Athletic Department Budget

    • The Cal athletic department had planned for a $55 million budget shortfall.
    • AD Jim Knowlton said that TV rights fees could eliminate the need to take out a loan.

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Pac-12 football will return to action this fall with a modified, seven-game schedule, walking back a previous decision to postpone all sports until 2021. 

UC Berkeley, which has 30 sports and about 850 athletes, had previously predicted a $55 million shortfall from its $100 million budget, with no money coming in from TV rights deals or ticket sales. 

But Athletic Director Jim Knowlton said in an interview with The New York Times that the department had found a way to make it work before the conference’s decision to restart. That plan included taking out an approximately $20 million loan, which he now thinks could be covered by the TV rights fees for the season. 

“Depending on how much we receive from our TV partners, it could be no loan at all, if, in fact, we get $20-plus million from our TV partners,” Knowlton said. “That would be great news for us, since we’ve got debt service already. We can balance our numbers with a $55 million loss, so any of the revenue is just going to help us in that pursuit.”

Knowlton’s comments contradict what Oregon President Michael Schill said following the announcement of the Pac-12’s latest plans. Schill claimed that any money recouped from the restart will be “tiny” compared to what programs have lost. 

Knowlton said that the financial gains didn’t “drive” Cal’s decision to restart, but that “for me to say I’m not cognizant of the financial implications would tell you I’m not a responsible leader.” Schill said that the potential gains “had no effect on our decision.”

While football games do return, they won’t have fans in the stadium. Knowlton said that Cal gave season ticket holders the option to donate the money they had already put down for the 2020 season, roll that money over to next season, or get a refund. Cal had a 91% season ticket renewal rate, and less than 7% have asked for a refund, Knowlton told The Times. 

Knowlton also said that he didn’t feel any external pressure to restart the season. The return of college football has been highly politicized, with President Donald Trump and various politicians pushing publicly for conferences like the Big Ten to reverse their decisions to postpone football. 

“I did not feel pressure from any group — except maybe our student-athletes who were excited about playing, if we could do it safely. And until we could, I just couldn’t look them in the eye, their parents in the eye, and say we’ve got a good handle on all of our protocols and all we’re going to do to go back to contact practices and competitions. So I didn’t feel the pressure,” Knowlton said. “And when we were able to find a way to meet our budget numbers, even without football, I was content, that when it was right, we’d make the decision.”

The Times asked Knowlton if he has a response to critics of schools who are bringing back athletic teams before the general student body. 

“We brought 2,000 students back into housing, our research density is at 25%and growing, we’ve had athletes doing voluntary workouts outdoors on our campus. And each piece of campus continues to look at what we can do safely that will continue to allow the campus to open,” Knowlton said. “I don’t see us as being on an island. I see us as part of a larger campus, looking to grow the footprint back on campus. We’re continuing to do and hope that the current trajectory and success continues, because I think we’re doing it right.”