Nebraska could lose $27 million in gameday profits with 20,000 fans at Memorial Stadium

What would Nebraska lose if Memorial Stadium had 20,000 to 30,000 fans? “If the football season doesn’t look like a traditional season, we’re out millions and millions upon millions of dollars,” NU Athletic Director Bill Moos told The World-Herald.

Bill Moos wants football season.

Wants it bad.

He isn’t alone, of course. There’s been a void in the sports world the past two months, especially in a sports-starved state like Nebraska, with its main squeeze no longer producing any juice with no spring game, no sidelines full of recruits, no near-daily updates about the inner-workings of the Huskers.

The want from the public for football is there. Which Moos understands.

But the bottom line is, even cash-flushed Nebraska needs that football money. It’s now halted the groundbreaking of the new $155 million football facility and forces Moos to make “tough decisions,” he said last week.

“If the football season doesn’t look like a traditional season, we’re out millions and millions upon millions of dollars,” Moos told The World-Herald. “It’s eye-opening, to say the least.”

A home game itself, Moos said, is worth $12 million, and that's before television and multimedia rights. If you’re only at 50% capacity, you can lose about $6 million per game, Moos said.

But what would Nebraska lose if Memorial Stadium had 20,000 to 30,000 fans, as some in the sport have suggested?

At 20,000 fans, which would be Memorial Stadium at 23% capacity, Nebraska could lose up to $27 million on game day revenue alone, almost the exact cost of running all 12 of Nebraska’s non-revenue sports for one school year, according to figures in Nebraska’s 2019 financial report. In 2019, it cost $26.9 for NU to participate in beach volleyball, rifle, bowling, baseball, golf, wrestling, swim & dive, tennis, softball, soccer, gymnastics, cross country and track and field.

Nebraska is uniquely positioned to avoid cutting sports, with a slush fund from the NU Foundation sitting at about $60 million. But heavy losses from football would put a burden on an athletic department that’s keen on coughing up big bucks for results. Scott Frost’s $5 million salary is the most lucrative in school history, and 14th-highest in college football. Fred Hoiberg was paid $2.5 million for his first season, the highest paycheck for a men’s basketball coach in school history, and his salary increased to $3 million on April 1 of 2020. It’ll bump up another $500,000 in April 2021, making him a top paid college basketball coach, and he’s due a $1 million paycheck on July 1 if he is still Nebraska’s head coach.

Not to mention the $155 million football facility, which Frost has said will revolutionize the football operation.

“This is evidence that the University of Nebraska is committed to competing at the highest level,” Frost said at the unveiling of plans before Nebraska’s home game against Ohio State.

Money is the lifeblood of college sports, particularly in Nebraska in the Big Ten era. Losing any of it hurts. But making even a little bit would help, too, which is why there’s been such a push to not have games played in empty stadiums.

The 20,000 to 30,000 fan numbers originally came from Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Davis. Just before the NCAA Division-I council voted last week to allow students back onto campus for voluntary workouts on June 1, Davis said he wanted to put 20,000 fans in Ohio State.

At Nebraska, if only 20,000 fans are allowed to purchase tickets for each of the seven home games next season, it’d be about $7 million in ticket sales for the year, about $23 million fewer than the 2019 season. That jumps to $10.5 million in ticket sales if it is 30,000 fans. Other profits on game day are made through sales of concessions, parking and programs, which usually generate about $5.4 million a year. That drops to $1.2 million at a 20,000-person crowd, if you attribute the same purchasing habits to the smaller crowd size.

The difficulty in precisely predicting the potential loss, though, is the general confusion about what could actually take place this fall. Games could begin with just 20,000 fans in September, but could balloon to full crowds if safety measures around the country are loosened by October and November. There are also questions as to how many games will be played this season, or if it’ll be a conference-only slate.

Moos would rather keep the non-conference games scheduled, noting how much mid-major schools rely on those non-con football checks.

“Those schools depend on those guarantees, and, primarily all of my colleagues, have at one time been at non-Power Five schools, and we all understand that,” Moos said.

However, volleyball coach John Cook said on a podcast released last week he thought the volleyball season would be conference-only based on conference-specific travel ordinances. Each conference could allow different restrictions or protocols. To streamline efficiency, Cook thought a conference-only slate would be ideal for one year while the world figures out the post-coronavirus world.

There’s also the question of TV money. Nebraska collected $36 million from televised football games last season. But Moos said that could drop in 2020.

“And if television isn’t getting the inventory, you can’t expect to get a full paycheck there,” Moos said. “And multimedia rights people are depending on those crowd sizes. There’s an argument that more people are watching the games on TV than they normally were because they can’t get in the stadium. I’m speculating there, but these are topics that are being looked at daily.”

What’s clear is this: all athletic departments are in a bind for the 2020-2021 school year. Multiple athletic departments have cut sports. Colorado, Iowa State, Minnesota, Kansas, Kansas State and others have cut pay of men’s basketball and football coaches.

Nebraska doesn’t plan on doing that right now, Moos has said. But in order to avoid it, there will be a push to bring fans in. The potential 76% decrease in gameday profits with just 20,000 fans would hurt. But it’s better than 100%.

“America not only wants — it needs — sports,” Moos said.