For months, student-athletes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison weren’t sure whether they’d get to play this school year.
Back in August, the Big Ten announced it would cancel its fall sports season. The decision was ultimately overturned, and the football season began. But other sports were delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Now the Badgers are making up for lost time. Twenty-two of Wisconsin’s 23 teams — including fall sports like cross-country, soccer and volleyball — are in action this semester. It’s never happened before, according to officials from the athletic department. The busy schedule is further complicated by all of the new coronavirus precautions the department has implemented, said Dr. Peter Miller, chair of the UW Athletic Board.
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“In each of those situations, we’re talking about meticulous detail that has never had to happen in any one sport,” he said. “So we can only imagine the level of work and the level of attention that is required here.”
When the board met Friday, Deputy Athletic Director Christopher McIntosh noted 21 department employees have been on full-time furlough since Jan. 3. And there are 30 unfilled positions within the department.
“The reality is, we are asking our staff, our coaches, our student-athletes to do more with less right now,” he said.
Despite the challenges facing UW Athletics, the Badgers had five nationally ranked teams on Friday. Wisconsin’s volleyball and women’s hockey teams are both No. 1.
Playing sports amid the pandemic hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Wisconsin’s football team was scheduled to play just eight regular season games but two were canceled and one was postponed. The women’s hockey team opened play in November but only skated two games before going on a hiatus for the month of December.
“Hats off to the people that are at the center of everything we do and that’s our student-athletes, who have been on one heck of a rollercoaster over the last 10 months or so and continue to impress all of us with their resilience,” McIntosh said.
Last summer, Wisconsin’s athletic department estimated it would lose about $100 million in revenue if the football season was canceled.
So far, UW Athletics has missed out on more than $70 million in revenue, according to officials. The net loss for the department is between $40 million to 50 million after cuts in spending. That’s despite added expenses for COVID-19 testing and travel during the pandemic.
“The ability of the department to not only consider those increased expenses, handle those increased expenses and then still have a net decrease in its loss through prudent management, I think bodes really well,” said John Schaeffer, co-chair of the Athletic Board’s Finance, Facilities and Operations Committee.
Financially, the athletic department has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said. Normally, an athletic department would borrow money to overcome a temporary revenue shortfall, but UW-Madison doesn’t have that option, she said.
The university is committed to the athletic department, Blank added, noting UW Athletics is typically a net contributor to the university’s budget.
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