Conference USA is looking at options to reduce expenses in the wake of the coronvirus pandemic, including adjusting its scheduling practices to cut down on travel costs.
Shifting more of C-USA’s teams into divisions or pods is among the ideas being considered, North Texas athletic director Wren Baker said on Wednesday night during a roundtable discussion of league officials and coaches.
Ron Thulin, a broadcaster who frequently calls C-USA games, moderated a panel discussion that also included UAB football coach Bill Clark, Florida Atlantic baseball coach John McCormack and Louisiana Tech women’s basketball coach Brooke Stoehr.
The event was broadcast on C-USA’s social media accounts and focused on how the league and its programs are dealing with unprecedented times in college athletics.
C-USA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments following the opening round in March, when it also shut down its spring sports.
Baker estimated in late March that UNT could be looking at a financial hit of up to $2.5 million due to the pandemic.
C-USA has formed a committee to deal with the challenges the league’s schools face. Baker acknowledged that fundamental changes to the conference are being considered.
“[We] will look at conference scheduling to see if there is a way to move to divisions or pods where geography is better in our favor to cut costs,” Baker said. “All of those options are on the table. We are on calls three days a week to talk about those kinds of issues.
“Hopefully we will get it done quickly.”
Baker also acknowledged that C-USA schools could look to alter their nonconference schedules in some sports to eliminate trips that require plane flights.
C-USA stretches from El Paso, where UTEP is located, to the East Coast. Old Dominion is located in Norfolk, Virginia.
The league is split into East and West Divisions in football and softball that limit the number of games between teams on opposite sides of the league, cutting down on travel costs. Men’s and women’s basketball, as well as women’s soccer and volleyball are among the sports that don’t have a division format.
“The athletic directors on our call are committed to doing everything they can to give the student-athletes the experience they deserve, and we want them to have,” Baker said. “At the same time, we have to make some difficult decisions to adjust scheduling and pick up savings where we can.”
C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod acknowledged shortly after shutting down the league’s sports in late March that the conference would quickly turn its attention to finding ways to navigate the financial impact of that decision.
“Like our peers, Conference USA has made exploring effective financial options for our membership’s consideration a top priority as we navigate these unprecedented times,” MacLeod said in a statement provided to the Denton Record-Chronicle.
Altering scheduling is one of C-USA’s more appealing options. The league made one move that included an element of regional scheduling in the summer of 2019.
UNT has used a bonus-play format in men’s basketball since the 2018-19 season that determines matchups for the final four games of the year. Teams are divided into three pods based on the league standings after 14 games and play within those groups to close the season.
C-USA instituted the similar concept in women’s basketball last season but included a provision that travel would be a consideration. The league wanted to limit the number of difficult and expensive trips its women’s basketball teams would have to make in the late stages of the season.
Baker said that 60% of UNT’s budget goes to cover salaries and benefits for employees as well as scholarships. Iowa State and Louisville are among the schools that have been forced to cut salaries in athletics.
UNT is hoping savings from other adjustments will help it avoid similar moves.
“Salaries and scholarships are the last levers we are going to pull,” Baker said. “We have said consistently that we value people and we want to protect the student-athlete experience.”