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College Sports Ready To Rebound At St. Louis-Area Schools Despite COVID Setbacks

The Chaifetz Arena is nearly empty as Saint Louis University plays Lousiana State University in basketball in St. Louis on Saturday, November 28, 2020. COVID-19 restrictions at the time dictated that only players, coaches, staff and media could be in attendance.
Bill Greenblatt
The Chaifetz Arena is nearly empty as St. Louis University plays Louisiana State University in basketball in St. Louis last November. COVID-19 restrictions at the time dictated that only players, coaches, staff and media could be in attendance.

The pandemic knocked the wind out of the billion-dollar industry of college athletics — stalling seasons, cutting championships and preventing fans from packing college stadiums.

St. Louis-area universities were among those that felt the financial hit, though not all in the same way.

Division I programs, such as St. Louis University's men’s and women’s basketball teams, stare down large budget holes typically filled by millions of dollars in ticket revenue, while many smaller collegiate programs less reliant on ticket sales are rebounding after embracing some belt-tightening and low-cost recruiting techniques. Some schools, including Maryville University and Lindenwood University, are even adding new sports.

SLU’s athletic department is hoping that that widespread COVID-19 vaccine distribution will mean that fans, and the money they bring with them to games, will come back strong next school year.

Ticket sales at Chaifetz Arena, SLU basketball’s home court, plummeted this past season because of coronavirus restrictions. The university limited ticket sales at the 10,600-seat arena to 1,500 for each home game — 14% of its capacity.

SLU Athletics Director Chris May declined to say exactly how much money the department lost during the pandemic to missing ticket sales but says it was significant.

“Men's basketball is the big driver, and that's where we drive the lion's share of our revenue,” May said.

SLU’s men’s and women’s basketball teams generated about $10 million in the 2018-19 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That accounts for 40% of SLU’s athletic department budget that school year.

May said he expects basketball ticket sales to recover next season and doesn’t plan on changing the revenue model for the future.

“Fortunately, we've been significantly more successful than some of our current counterparts in the business,” he said. “We're looking forward to next year when we can really drive the revenues at a maximum level.”

“Success,” to May, means not having to tell student-athletes or coaches that SLU is cutting their programs.

Several large universities cut sports programs this year, including the University of Iowa, Stanford University and the University of Minnesota. In total, 18 collegiate teams were dissolved in the NCAA’s Power Five conferences as a direct result of the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Many athletic departments found ways to stay afloat by cutting travel costs and adopting virtual recruiting. The NCAA in March 2020 implemented a “dead period” in which all Division I college coaches are prohibited from traveling to recruit or hosting recruits until May 31.

The money-saving change helped Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville stabilize its athletic department budget. Smaller universities, including SIUE, rely predominantly on student fees to fund athletic programs, rather than ticket sales.

Sports keep students on campus and help boost enrollment and retention, SIUE Athletic Director Tim Hall said. That’s why he views cutting programs as a last resort.

“In the immediacy, it feels penny-wise. ‘Hey we’ll save some money,’ but in the long term, pound foolish,” he said.

During the pandemic, college enrollment declined by nearly 7% nationwide, disproportionately affecting students at high schools with low-income and majority-minority populations. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, where that data comes from, called the drop “an unprecedented one-year decline.”

“I don't know that there's a leader in higher education anywhere who's not, at least for a quarter of their day, thinking about enrollment and retention strategies,” Hall said.

Hall said he plans to continue to use virtual recruiting to reach students outside the Midwest.

Maryville and Lindenwood also plan to continue the virtual recruiting tactics they adopted in 2020.

“None of our rosters this year were lacking for numbers because of the pandemic. Our rosters were full as we needed them to be, and we were able to do that without leaving campus,” said Lonnie Folks, Maryville’s athletic director.

“We can recruit kids from Texas now because it's all virtual anyway,” Folks said.

Maryville plans to add NCAA Division II men’s volleyball and field hockey next year. Lindenwood added archery and reinstated weightlifting, a sport it originally cut in May 2020.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.