Dimensional Innovations Practice Director for Collegiate Sports, Drew Berst, recently sat down with University of Kansas Director of Athletics Jeff Long for a one-on-one conversation centering around the impact of COVID-19. From budget concerns to the upcoming fall season, Long offers his perspective on how the pandemic is impacting athletic departments around the country.
You can watch the full video above or, if you’d like, we’ve broken the video into two parts and included an audio-only option.
Part I: How Kansas is operating in the COVID-19 era, the impact the crisis has had on the business of college athletics, KU’s budget, NCAA investigation, fan engagement.
Part II: Name, Image, and Likeness, bringing fans back, event logistics.
The Current Reality
Berst started the conversation by asking how the department at Kansas is adapting to the sudden reality of video conferencing instead of in-person meetings. Long explained that everyone has been on board with the changes and even the coaches, including Bill Self, are attending video meetings. They find the technology effective and useful and he says this may be one of the many things that change higher education and collegiate athletics, even after the crisis has passed. He gave an example of a possible scenario after the dust settles, that maybe departments will be less likely to hop on a plane for a face to face meeting after becoming familiar with new technology, he called it efficient and cost-effective.
Long says his department has been impacted personally by the COVID-19 outbreak, one coach tested positive and is now recovering. He says no student-athletes have tested positive as far as his department knows and added that while most student-athletes are shelter-in-place at home, some do remain on campus. He told Berst that his coaches can now work virtually with athletes up to eight hours a week on the particular sport, but the coaches can engage in mental health, nutrition, and academics at will. Long says they have seen anxiety increase in their athletes and have worked hard to maintain contact and stay on top of mental health for both the students and the staff.
Long says for Kansas, the majority of their revenues were in; they already had basketball and football season. They did have a reduction with missing the NCAA tournament full payout, but they have been able to offset those cuts with a loss of expenses. He says their active spring sports were all expenses, and those have been cut and that is saving money. Long explains that when he got to Kansas two years ago, he implemented a new way for the department to do budgets and that everyone was tasked with staying on budget. They have done so and that has enabled them to weather this particular storm, he expects a balanced budget this year, but next year hinges on football seasons.
Long explains that Kansas is not as dependent on their football ticket revenues as a school that fills up a 100,000 seat stadium, he feels that those schools will get hit differently than Kansas no matter how football season is played in the fall. He does believe they will play somehow in the fall. He says at this point in time, local officials can enact stricter health and safety guidelines on a state-state-by-state and county-by-county basis, so some institutions may be able to play and others may not. He says it really depends on how the country reopens, because many conferences stretch over states and multi-geographical areas. He says they want to stay within conference guidelines, but there may be pressure to do otherwise. He also says they are basing opinions on the way things are now, but a month from now things may be very different.
Berst asked if Kansas has talked about a regional scheduling model and Long said the answer is yes. He says this has forced them to think outside of the box. For some Olympic sports, they may talk to teams that are only a bus drive away instead of flying. He says decisions like that may be moved to the forefront of future plans.
Berst said if students do return in August, football could proceed as scheduled, but the athletes may not be in the proper shape to start the season. Long said they always defer to the medical professionals when it comes to whether or not they are ready to play. He says 4 to 6 weeks is a must to condition players and that will dictate the start of the season. As the country reopens, Long points out other teams may get head to practice earlier than others and that could dictate how schedules are set. He says there are other discussions about playing part of the season in the fall and the rest in the spring and other discussions that put off the season until the spring entirely. He says he’s seen a dozen different hypothetical situations when it comes to football season.
Long says in addition to football they are also looking ahead to basketball season. He thinks basketball will start on time but admits there could be an issue if there is an uptick in COVID-19 cases at that time. He says it’s something they have to plan for even with so many unknowns.
Kansas has a long history of storied basketball seasons; Long says that ending the tournament early has taken its toll. It was heartbreaking for the student-athletes. He says Bill Self did a tremendous job preparing the team this year and they expected a strong run in the tournament, so there was a deep sense of disappointment. It was also devastating for fans, the emotional toll has been steep. The financial part has also been in consideration, they are continuing to plan for the future, no matter how uncertain it seems right now.
Long did say that the NCAA infraction process has stayed on schedule and they are expecting a reply from the NCAA. In the NCAA’s original notice of allegations that was issued Sept. 23 and released by the university, KU was charged with seven violations: five for men’s basketball and two for football. He says their process is continuing as scheduled, but obviously there could be delays.
Fan Engagement and NIL
Long says over the past few years they have stepped up their game on social media and that has helped the department and programs stay engaged during the pandemic. He also says they are doing surveying at this time hoping to learn more. He says fans are starved for information so they are trying to provide as much as possible. He says they are doing an event with the football team called “Late Night Under the Lights.” It will be a virtual event with the coaches and their families.
Long reiterated that now is a time to look after fans. Kansas has extended the deadline for season tickets, understanding that everyone, including fans and donors, are going through an uncertain time. He says the industry has been changing over the years from merely collecting ticket money to being fan-focused and improving fan experiences and he says this crisis has given them time to refocus on the fans.
He said the biggest challenge for ADs across the country before the pandemic was to get fans to the stadiums. He sees an opportunity for more social media engagement with NIL guidelines on the horizon. Long says he now sees the value in having athletes garner sponsorships on various platforms, not only for their personal gain, but for the benefit of the institution and the fans in general. He believes NIL reforms will benefit fan engagement as the fans get to know different student-athletes.
Bringing Fans Back
Long says his department is looking into what the conditions might be once fans are able to return. What are the entry points? What are the precautions? Will they be wearing masks, hand sanitizing stations? Can stadiums be at full capacity or will seating capacity be cut in half? He thinks institutions with older stadiums, like Kansas, will have to rise to whatever challenge is presented. He explains they are looking at many scenarios in anticipation of people coming back to stadiums because they want to ensure safety and a good fan experience when people return.
He ended the interview reiterating that they have a lot to plan for and they do anticipate changes in the way they do business after the pandemic. He says he hopes when fans return it is reminiscent of the baseball strike in the 90s that resulted in renewed interest once the games started again. He hopes that fans see teams, like Kansas, are a big part of their lives and return to support the student-athletes.