As Penn State’s vice president of intercollegiate athletics, Sandy Barbour knows how important the university’s 31 programs and more than 800 student-athletes are to a student body of some 40,000 and the Happy Valley community at large.
Given the uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic and what it has meant to college sports – the termination of the winter sports seasons and the elimination of the spring sports seasons throughout the country – Barbour and the university leadership are focused on finding a way to keep it all together.
That’s where the behemoth known as the Penn State football program comes in, the sport that “drives the train from a financial standpoint,” as Barbour described Thursday in a conference call with reporters. She is hopeful there will be a 2020 season in some form, even if it has to be carried into 2021.
“I believe it is in everyone’s best interest, when it’s safe and right to do so, that we play a football season,” she said. “We’ve talked about kind of the emotional and the morale piece for communities across the country. Then obviously there’s a revenue and a financial piece to it. So if our return fits into the time frame that we have to do it in a non-traditional part of the year, I think we’ll all look to try to make that happen.”
More than the morale boost from 100,000-plus people packing Beaver Stadium, Penn State football also fires up the State College economy – hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops that look forward to the seven home football weekends every fall. Barbour said the sport is a big part of the partnership between the town and the university.
“That’s just another reason why we’re going to do absolutely everything we can to have a football season in some way, shape or form,” she said. “We’re going to do it. It’s really, really important that it’s clear where we’re taking our advice from, which is from the experts and from a medical perspective.
“When it’s time to do so, when it’s safe to do so, we’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it in a big way.”
Barbour said she and coach James Franklin consult with the department’s “performance team” made up of sports scientists, strength and conditioning personnel, and the head team physician, to determine how much time is needed to prepare for a football season, and that “a 60-day window is about right.”
Concerning the athletic department’s overall financial situation, Barbour did not directly address whether coaches and administrators would be asked to take pay cuts. She and her staff have examined possible shortfalls for the 2019-2020 fiscal year and determined “we’re going to be in good shape.”
“We feel that we have a good handle on that, thanks to some expense savings that we will obviously have from not recruiting, from not having events here in the spring and the fact that we have over the course of the last five years built up our reserves,” she said. “We do have – I wouldn’t call it robust – an adequate reserve.
“Then you move into the unknown as it relates to [2020-21]. We’re certainly doing all the analysis so that we’re prepared. We’re doing some scenario planning so that we’re prepared. At this point we’re in decent shape coming out of ‘20.”
It could be different in 2020-21. Results of a survey released Thursday by LEAD1, an association of athletic directors from 130 major-college football schools, showed 63% believe their revenues will decrease by about 20% during that school year, even with an abbreviated football season.
Still, given the uncertain environment, Barbour said she is not frustrated because “we’re focused on keeping our people together, keeping our people engaged."
“I give all the credit in the world to our faculty and our students who turned on a dime and went to remote teaching and remote learning,” she said. “A lot of people worked behind the scenes really hard to make that happen. We’ve been focused on making sure those in our care have what they need and are connected.
“Obviously mental health is a huge, huge challenge in our society today, and as now everybody is away from each other, we’ve paid special attention to making sure that we’re in touch with everybody in our department. Our coaches have done a phenomenal job of staying in touch with our student-athletes.