Long Beach State Athletics has been grappling with financial deficits near $1 million for several years, and the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the situation to $3 million, prompting another down year for the 2021-22 season.
Andy Fee, athletic director at LBSU, explained the program’s position since the pandemic started.
“It’s been a challenge. We’ve had COVID, we’ve had a lot of things pop up as we’ve kind of moved from 2017 when I took over to where we are today,” Fee said. “COVID kind of crushed us, and I think a lot of athletic departments out there as well, in terms of fundraising, corporate partnership dollars, ticket sales. It’s a lot of revenue that we lost out on.”
According to USA TODAY’s financial database of major NCAA programs (paid subscription) and interviews with LBSU administrators, the program has been operating at or near a negative net income dating back to 2005, which is where the database stops.
In the last six years — 2017 and 2018 were combined due to profit — LBSU has not fared well with net income. The program took massive hits in 2015 and 2016 and managed to rebound scarcely in the coming years before the pandemic escalated the problem
Fee said LBSU’s status as a mid-major program is a factor because of the sports it can offer compared to the nation’s larger conferences.
“We’re a school that doesn’t have football, so the revenue we can produce is critical,” Fee said. “And the margin between being successful and unsuccessful, basically, is COVID for us because we don’t have huge media rights dollars that the Pac-12 does, Big Ten, SEC, they have these huge media rights dollars.”
To compensate for the lost money in 2020, Tiffany Edlin, assistant athletic director, business manager, said the program received $1.7 million in lost revenue from the school as COVID-19 relief money. The department submitted a request in the range of $4-5 million.
LBSU also requested money for COVID-19-specific items, such as test kits and thermometers, and received about $1.1-1.2 million through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. This was in addition to the $1.7 million.
Another hit the program took came from camps. LBSU usually hosted summer camps on campus for youth groups that generated around $1 million. However, the program hasn’t hosted one in two years. LBSU hopes to bring back camps in the summer of 2022 and will host smaller clinics until then.
Despite the deficits, Fee said LBSU has had no discussions or inclinations of cuts to the 19 sports. He added that President Jane Close Conoley is a “strong supporter” of all the sports.
As COVID-19 affects the logistics of the program for the foreseeable future, these areas of revenue and expenses shape the yearly outlook.
Edlin said the budget is largely dependent on one-time generated revenue, like ticket sales and philanthropic contributions.
LBSU’s ticket sales peaked in 2017 and slightly dipped in 2018 and 2019 before plummeting to $536,423 in 2020, the lowest number since 2011.
Fee said many variables affect sales: the quality of LBSU’s teams, big names coming in, opponents traveling to the city and hosting tournaments.
The 2017 number soared because of the NCAA baseball regional — the first in Long Beach since 2008 — and Super Regional the school hosted.
“The goal is for that number to go back north,” said Fee about the downfall in 2020.
Contributions from donors, Edlin said, are a key driver in the revenue generated. Donors have the autonomy to give to facility upgrades, create scholarships or simply donate. It peaked in 2015 at over $2.8 million but has since declined.
In 2020, because of COVID-19, donors didn’t have opportunities to attend games, dinners and other fundraising events, like golf tournaments, causing the fall. The amount in 2020 was the lowest dating back to 2005.
But Edlin said the dip that happened after 2015 could be attributed to a change in an IRS tax law.
“Often a donor would donate and it would be related to their ticket. They’d buy a courtside ticket to basketball and a portion of that would be a tax-deductible gift. The laws changed surrounding that, and we had to separate that,” Edlin said.
Beyond ticket sales and contributions, paths towards revenue are scarce. The Big West recently agreed to a new multi-year deal with ESPN to have certain games streamed on ESPN+, but that’s not a major stream of revenue for LBSU.
Fee said the deal for LBSU is more about the exposure than revenue. LBSU doesn’t have to pay thousands of dollars for a 30-second commercial; instead, moments like Lena Solano of women’s soccer coming in at No. 2 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays of the night through ESPN+ is the exposure that helps the program, Fee said.
Fee added that the deal is closer to half a million dollars and is split up among the 11 schools in the conference.
“What you would pay for exposure is really the benefit…a little bit of money, a lot of exposure,” Fee said. “It’s value added to our budget, but it’s not significant.”
For expenses, LBSU spends the most in two areas: scholarships and salaries of coaches and staff.
Since 2005, the program has typically seen a year-to-year increase in scholarship money distributed to student-athletes. Though, as seen from 2016 to 2018, there are some fluctuations.
But the school distributed over $3 million in scholarships in 2020, the year of the pandemic
Fee said the amount the program can give largely varies on the students. Out-of-state and international scholarships can increase the amount. Of the 19 sports, there are 149 scholarships available, and LBSU can fund 124.
Edlin added that LBSU could give more to student-athletes, but the funding caps the program.
“What we’ve been capable of awarding versus what we’ve actually awarded, historically, has been very low due to funding,” Edlin said.
This year the amount is likely going to be lower than 2020, but Edlin said there is hope there would be more funding in 2022-23.
Salaries paid to coaches and staff are the biggest expense. Besides a $300,000 decrease in 2010 due to system-wide furloughs after the pandemic wrecked university budgets, the amount paid has risen every year, peaking in 2020 with $10.8 million.
The main reason is because of benefits. Based on an employee’s classification — faculty, management personnel plan (MPP), support staff — an employee gets benefits on top of their salary, which is usually estimated around 42%, per Edlin; so, theoretically, an employee making $100,000 would have a total pay plus benefits of $142,000.
Men’s basketball head coach Dan Monson, for example, had in 2019 a total pay of $290,210 with an additional $108,608 in benefits; Monson made $398,818 that year, per Transparent California. Men’s volleyball head coach Alan Knipe had in 2019 a total pay of $170,039 plus $75,721 in benefits, taking his total pay with benefits to $245,761.
Though LBSU hopes to bounce back soon, the expectation is 2021-22 will be another down year. LBSU is projecting a revenue loss of $2 million this year, though that isn’t guaranteed.
“It’s a guessing game right now because there are so many variables,” Fee said. “I’d love to sit here and say, ‘Everyone’s going to come out to Blair Field for the Dirtbags,’ but we have to be a little more cautious because we know some people are still a little nervous to go out and be in crowds. Some are excited, some are nervous, so it’s very tough.”
Fee added LBSU needs to see how the basketball, baseball, softball and men’s volleyball seasons this year play out because, if conditions improve, the program is optimistic about rebounding in 2022-23.
“Our budget takes a village,” Fee said. “It’s complicated, it’s been challenging, but we’re excited for the future because we believe we’ll be back towards where we used to be and growing what we can offer to our student-athletes.”