Wren Baker

North Texas athletic director Wren Baker stands inside the Lovelace & McNatt Families Practice Facility this fall. Baker is preparing to help UNT navigate a budget shortfall of up to $2.5 million due to the impact the spread of COVID-19 has had on college athletics overall and specifically at UNT.

Spring is normally a busy time for the North Texas athletic department, not to mention one that is important to the program’s financial health.

The Don January Golf Classic raises thousands annually for scholarships. The football program’s spring game and spring sports like softball and tennis are also key items on the calendar.

UNT is preparing for a financial hit of up to $2.5 million after those events and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament that is vital to funding athletics across the Division I landscape were wiped out by the spread of COVID-19.

UNT athletic director Wren Baker has frozen spending for the remainder of the spring as a result to protect the future of the school’s athletic program that reported $39.9 million in expenses for the 2019 fiscal year.

“We don’t know the full scale of what that will look like yet,” Baker said of the financial repercussions UNT will experience as a result of the disease. “We’re planning for the worst-case scenario. We’re making adjustments to our budget and forecasting ahead to the extent we can.”

Conference USA is also examining ways it could soon act in the wake of the spread of the disease.

Judy MacLeod

Judy MacLeod

“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,” C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod said in a statement provided to the Denton Record-Chronicle.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said during a teleconference this week that the league will compensate schools for money lost from spring sport cancellations.

Any help UNT receives from C-USA could help make up for the decline in revenue from a variety of sources.

The biggest hit for UNT will come from a drop in the distribution it receives from the NCAA, which announced last week the funds it provides to Division I schools this year will decline from $600 million to $225 million.

UNT received $1.3 million from the NCAA in the 2019 fiscal year. Baker said the school is anticipating at a reduction of at least $500,000 and as much as $900,000 in the school’s NCAA payout. The NCAA is largely funded by its men’s basketball tournament.

The decline in money UNT receives from the NCAA is likely just the tip of the iceberg.

UNT’s athletic program also relies heavily on student fees. The more students who are enrolled, the more money UNT’s sports program receives.

UNT brought in $12.6 million in student fees in 2019, when the school also kicked in $15.5 million in direct support.

A decline in the number of students enrolled at UNT could result in a decrease in revenue from those sources.

“A considerable portion of our budget comes from campus,” Baker said. “If the university is in a bind, we know that we will also be in a bind and need to prepare accordingly.”

UNT announced in December that it raised $4.6 million in contributions for the 2018-19 school year, the third-largest total in program history. That total was bolstered by a $1 million gift to help fund construction of the Lovelace & McNatt Families Practice Facility, an indoor venue with a full-length football field that opened in the fall.

UNT said its athletic department had 1,411 donors in its latest annual report, which covered the 2018-19 school year. The school listed donors to the Mean Green Scholarship Fund in the report.

All but 21 of those donors gave less than $7,499.

Ernie Kuehne

Ernie Kuehne has given millions of dollars to the North Texas athletic department and is concerned about how the spread of COVID-19 will impact giving among donors who are concerned about their own financial futures.

Ernie Kuehne is one of the UNT athletic department’s most important boosters and has given millions of dollars to the department over the years. He’s concerned about the impact the spread of COVID-19 will have on donors.

“There’s no question it’s going to impact giving,” Kuehne said. “I’m very concerned about our fan base being able to afford to support athletics because of job security. The middle-class fans are our bread and butter.”

Those fans help support events that benefit the department throughout the year. The Don January Golf Classic brings in between $30,000 and $50,000 annually, said Hank Dickenson, a senior athletic department official who plays a key role in running the event.

UNT will also likely lose some revenue because it won’t be able to rent out its athletic facilities for the foreseeable future or sell concessions at events.

Baker acted quickly to address those shortfalls when he froze the program’s budget and split its expenses into three categories — essential, important and elective. Baker said UNT will cover everything that is essential and everything it can that is important.

Elective expenses are off the table for now.

The program’s summer coaches’ caravans could be among the events that are canceled, depending on how the crisis unfolds over the next few weeks.

The caravans are a program tradition. The UNT athletic department hosts events in cities across the state, where the program’s coaches talk about their teams’ prospects in the upcoming school year.

UNT’s made stops in Arlington, Houston and Austin in addition to its annual stop in Denton last summer. All but the Denton stop took place in the first week of June.

“We don’t want to cancel those events because we really like to get out across the state the visit with people, but it doesn’t look really promising,” Baker said.

UNT is focused on the immediate financial impact of the spread of COVID-19 but also has its eye on the future and fall sports, including football.

“We’re planning for a fall sports season. But it’s too early to know the status of fall sports yet,” Baker said. “We have to be prepared for worst-case scenarios while being hopeful that’s not the case. We’re taking it a day at a time.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

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