UNC football players return to campus with $40M on the line

Loss of season could have massive financial implications

UNC-Chapel Hill football players are returning to campus after months at home during the coronavirus pandemic, and Head Coach Mack Brown says they're not hesitant at all about playing in the unique climate.

“I really feel like our first week has been a huge success, and if you had asked me last week what I wanted this to be like, it couldn’t have been any better for us,” the Hall of Famer, in his second stint as head coach for the Tar Heels and brimming with optimism, told reporters during a video conference. “Everything has been great.”

UNC’s entire athletic department has a lot riding on things continuing to run smoothly for the football team, as it generates a massive surplus in revenue that is used to fund several other sports programs.


The football team generated $39,942,191 in revenue during the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which came out to a $16,528,127 surplus. The football team's revenue is more than a third of that for the overall athletic department, which finished with $107,812,619 for 2019, according to Inside Carolina.

Bubba Cunningham, UNC's athletic director, told FOX Business there are simply too many unknowns at the moment to estimate how a decrease in revenue will affect the university.

"As with all of our return-to-campus planning, we are coordinating our contingency plans with our university, including financial contingencies," he said. "Unfortunately, we cannot be more specific right now -- because we have no way of knowing what the future fall schedule will look like. As we plan, the health and safety of students, coaches, staff, visitors and the Carolina community remains our top priority."


Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, told FOX Business some fallout has already occurred from the anticipation of lost revenue for college football teams at smaller schools.

“We’re seeing an unprecedented number of athletic departments, right now mostly at the group Group of 5 level -- MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, those kinds of Division I conferences -- that are slashing programs, cutting some of the non-revenue sports, cutting postseason tournaments in some of the non-revenue sports, and doing it for several years in advance, all because they’re trying to play defense right now,” he said.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s $40 million-a-year program is a drop in the bucket compared with the overall NCAA. Rishe told ESPN in May he conservatively estimates the 65 Power 5 schools would altogether lose more than $4 billion in football revenues if the season were canceled. That’s an average loss per school of $62 million.

Rishe noted that while Power 5 schools have yet to start trimming nonrevenue sports, staff has already been furloughed and some employees have seen pay cuts.

But as of now, the NCAA is planning on moving forward as planned, with the first kickoff scheduled for Aug. 29.

Head coach Mack Brown of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels during a game against the Clemson Tigers on September 28, 2019. Clemson won 21-20. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

The NCAA Division I Council finalized on Wednesday a six-week practice schedule for football programs that lays out the roadmap for teams to get ready for the season. The timeline, which facilitates the transition from voluntary workouts to the mandatory preseason, will allow coaches to actually interact with their players for the first time since athletics shut down in mid-March.

Coach Brown said Friday that the NCAA’s release of the concrete practice schedule is a step in the right direction for his coaching staff and players.

“This really helps us because we can sit down with each player and show them exactly when this is going to happen, what you’ve got to be ready for, when we go to this phase, and then this phase, and move forward,” he said. “Now, we’re starting to get more answers. There are still unanswered questions, but at least we have a plan until we can get to that next question, and that’s what’s helping us so much right now.”

But a lot can happen in 10 weeks before the season starts. Four games involving historically black colleges and universities have already been canceled.


The University of Houston suspended all workouts on June 12 after six symptomatic student-athletes tested positive for coronavirus. The University of Texas at Austin announced Thursday that more than a dozen players tested positive for coronavirus and 10 more are in self-quarantine. Neither university responded to a request for comment.

At the professional level, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton tested positive in March. One assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has tested positive, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

Several players have tested positive on multiple NFL teams, including the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has become the face of the government's response to the pandemic, said Thursday that extreme measures will have to be in place for football to happen this year.

"Unless players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day — it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall," he told CNN.


Despite all the uncertainties, UNC sophomore quarterback Sam Howell told reporters Thursday he fully expects to play.

“I never really doubted that we’d play football. I always prepared like we were going to play. We’re really excited for this year, we have a lot of momentum building off of last year,” he said. “I’m definitely excited that things are going the way they’re going. I just hope we get to play the full season.”