Eye on the budget: Pandemic’s effect has UA’s focus

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, June 19, 2020
Hunter Yurachek, director of athletics at Arkansas, watches Saturday, May 25, 2019, during the second day of play in the NCAA Men's Golf Championships at Blessings Golf Club in Johnson.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Hunter Yurachek, director of athletics at Arkansas, watches Saturday, May 25, 2019, during the second day of play in the NCAA Men's Golf Championships at Blessings Golf Club in Johnson.

FAYETTEVILLE -- At the outset of the covid-19 pandemic in mid-March, University of Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek said the department would be prepared to handle the financial repercussions of the crisis, come what may.

The athletic department submitted a budget April 24 with anticipated revenues of $124.5 million for the 2020-21 fiscal year that starts July 1. That proposed budget will hold steady if the football season proceeds on course with unlimited capacity at 76,000-seat Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

If health officials in coordination with UA administration put restrictions on crowd counts, which is starting to look more likely, adjustments will have to be made.

Yurachek's stated aims have been to keep the student-athlete experience intact as well as possible and to not cut staff or programs amid the crisis. So far, those goals remain intact, but then again, Arkansas has not had to deal with a curtailing of football revenues. At least not yet.

As Yurachek told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in April, "When you reduce your revenues by 10 or 20%, correspondingly we've got to cut our expenses in the same percentages."

Yurachek said the season-ticket base is around 31,000 after the latest Razorback Foundation campaign, and that about 91% of foundation members had renewed their pledges for the 2020-21 fiscal year. The department has suspended single-game football ticket sales for the time being while appropriate crowd sizes are being debated.

While no sports at the UA have been cut, no employees furloughed or jobs eliminated, and no salaries reduced, the UA athletic department has been examining ways to trim budgets.

Reductions could come from several avenues, such as travel, marketing and promotions, recruiting, and other means. And if negative scenarios play out, such as another wave of the coronavirus and severe limitations in crowd sizes at athletic events, certainly other means of reducing expenses would have to be on the table.

Coaches across the board at Arkansas have brainstormed along the way about what they can do to help a department that operates in the black only in three sports: football, men's basketball and baseball.

First-year football Coach Sam Pittman, who has yet to conduct his first practice with the Razorbacks, was adamant about keeping all 19 programs alive and viable in a recent video conference with reporters.

"The bottom line is we will do whatever we need to do to have success at Arkansas and to keep all programs alive," Pittman said. "And if we need to take a pay cut, we'll take a pay cut. It is what it is.

"The circumstances have changed and we've got to roll with it. Whatever it may be, that's what we have to do, but every program at the University of Arkansas is important. So if it takes part of the salary to keep another program alive, then that's what we'll do."

Pittman is among many coaches who noted some of the video conferencing technology employed during the pandemic could have staying power and save money in areas like recruiting in the years to come.

"I think they've been able to figure out, 'Hey, is there a little better way, a more efficient way to do this where maybe I don't have to go on the road and recruit like we have been throughout my career?'" Yurachek said during an appearance on the One Razorback Roadshow earlier this spring. "With some of the things they're now doing virtually, they're saying, 'Hey, this is working for us.'"

Though the school lost revenues during the spring with the cancellation of home games in baseball and softball and no outdoor track and field meets, the Razorbacks also saved expenses in travel and lodging costs, by having lower expenses for athletes' food and nutrition, and with savings on items as simple as lower water and utility bills at campus facilities.

The Razorbacks have not had to feel the financial burn as of yet that has led some smaller schools to cut entire programs, like University of Cincinnati soccer, Old Dominion men's wrestling, and the sports of men's cross country, men's golf and women's tennis at Akron, among others.

UA women's basketball Coach Mike Neighbors has a pending salary raise, agreed to in conversations with Yurachek, that has gone on the back burner since the virus crisis began, and he's not fretting about it.

Neighbors said he essentially didn't have to be told to consider ways to trim his program's budget.

"I've always been a hope for the best but plan for the worst [person]," Neighbors said in late April. "Sure, in the back of my mind, when I'm watching Tiger King and [thinking] 'What does this look like?' It makes you thankful for what we do have.

"You've got to have a plan. I'm just kind of personally taking it week by week, you know. Most weeks I haven't even made it all the way through the week without having to change."

Neighbors said he's followed the guidance of Yurachek and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey throughout the covid-19 lull.

"They're the two smartest people I've ever sat in meetings with, so I'm using them as my guide," he said. "I've taken it week by week. But the plans are in place for whether this thing isn't over next week or goes on to the next week after that. I'm kind of looking at it that way and not getting too far ahead of myself, but I'm consistently looking about plans for the worst."

The women's basketball program recently scheduled several in-state games at home, on the road and at neutral sites in Central Arkansas.

Yurachek announced two weeks ago that UA coaches were free to schedule games against all in-state schools, a policy that had previously been limited to games against schools in the UA System in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Those games could reap significant savings on travel and other factors and should increase attendance.

Razorbacks baseball Coach Dave Van Horn immediately took the initiative on that request and scheduled games against Arkansas State and the University of Central Arkansas, adding to previously arranged games against UALR and UABP that will allow his team to play all four in-state Division I opponents in 2021.

For the upcoming cross country season, Coach Lance Harter has composed a virtually all-regional schedule prior to the postseason. As the schedule currently sits, two meets at Stillwater, Okla., three hours away, is the farthest the Razorbacks would travel in cross country prior to the SEC championships in Baton Rouge and NCAA regionals in College Station, Texas. The NCAA championships are back in Stillwater, Okla., on Nov. 21.

Coach Chris Bucknam's men's cross country team has a similar schedule, though it is incomplete and still might have some tweaks.

Both cross country teams set up prior to the covid-19 outbreak a home meet Sept. 4, called the Arkansas Preview, which is scheduled to include other UA System schools and other regional teams.

UA men's basketball Coach Eric Musselman recently announced a two-game agreement with Oklahoma to play the Sooners in Tulsa, which will reduce travel expenses. The deal could expand into a four-game agreement.

He was asked if he had to keep cost-cutting measures actively in mind.

"I think in whatever line of work you're in, whether it's your newspaper business or our basketball or NBA front offices, I think we're all budget conscious right now," Musselman said. "Yes, we have done some things already, whether it's with scouting services or whatever, to try to be as fiscally responsible as we possibly can.

"There's no doubt. It doesn't matter what's going to happen going forward, we've already made decisions that make the most sense from a budgetary standpoint and obviously whatever happens going forward, there will be more thought put into it."

Mussleman said basketball operations director Anthony Ruta has identified other areas men's basketball can make fiscally responsible moves.

UA softball Coach Courtney Deifel said Yurachek and Clayton Hamilton, the department's chief financial officer, have "done a tremendous job" in leadership regarding budget planning.

"They've just kind of asked us to look at it and just where we have some efficiencies," Deifel said in early May. "They haven't made cuts. I know there's a lot of different scenarios moving forward and we're not going to really know what that looks like until it happens. I do know I trust their intentions and they're wanting to do what's best for the student-athletes.

"I don't know what it's going to look like if we don't have football and all that. I really hope we don't see that. We're just taking that as we get it from Hunter."

Women's golf Coach Shauna Taylor, speaking early in the crisis, said the message had been sent "really clear that our student athlete's safety right now is the most important piece," and she was unsure about budget-cutting measures at the time.

"I'm sure Hunter is probably putting a plan together to make sure that we all have what we need to be successful once this passes," Taylor said.

"Definitely haven't heard anything, but kind of in the back of my mind I'm making plans for it," men's golf Coach Brad McMakin said of budget cutting while on the same Zoom conference with Taylor.

"There's so many good tournaments in the country that we could re-arrange our schedule to budget better if we have to. But again, I think Hunter will give us every opportunity to be successful on our end.

"Both programs have been very successful in the past and I know he wants to continue the success for the student-athletes. We just haven't heard anything yet, but it's definitely in the back of my mind right now."

Both the men's and women's golf teams have been competitive on the national level, with each team winning the SEC championship within the last three years and both squads being fixtures at the NCAA championships. They have both played tournaments in Mexico and California, the kind of events that enhance recruiting, but also the kind that might be played less frequently in the near term.

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