They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You are provided with lunch because someone wants you to hear their presentation, be another body at the conference, buy them lunch another day, connect them to someone you know or do them a favor sometime in the future — there are always strings attached.
But can there be a free football game? Well, for the average college student viewer, perhaps, or perhaps close to free. We have the cost of getting the game on the TV, but maybe we use a friend’s stream or a family member’s account, and in terms of after-the-fact obligations, like with a free lunch, we don’t owe anyone anything. Just bragging rights, sometimes.
However, the situation differs for alumni and donors to the university. Football games, and their outcomes, influence if and how much they donate. Much like a “free” lunch, the relationship is not contractual, but it very much exists implicitly.
A number of studies have highlighted a link that exists between athletic success and private contributions to universities. One, in particular, found that link to be causal — winning effectively increases donations to a university.
So, the morning after the 123rd Big Game was hard not just for Cal players and coaches because they lost a game entirely in their reach, but also for administrators and those grappling with Cal’s financial deficit.
That 24-23 Big Game loss extended the Bears’ losing streak to keep them winless on the season. And with Oregon and Washington State then on the horizon, there was valid reason to believe that Cal football could end its 2020 campaign without sniffing the win column.
On top of feeling sorry and defeated about having to hand the Axe right back to the Cardinal after just a single year with it, the Bears suffered their third loss of the year the week news broke about former players alleging abuse by Cal women’s soccer head coach Neil McGuire.
It felt like the nail in the coffin — who could possibly feel compelled to make a donation to Cal Athletics or UC Berkeley after that week in Cal sports?
Now, I’m not saying the athletic program doesn’t deserve funds, nor that student-athletes need to be champions in their sports to keep their programs afloat. However, athletic programs can only operate when there are resources for them. With Cal’s football and basketball programs, the largest markers of athletic success, on the trajectory that they find themselves on, Cal’s financial concerns will not simply vanish over time; a long-term solution is needed.
Based on the relationship between athletics and donations previously predicted by researchers, donations to Cal will decrease this season due to the football team’s poor performances on the field and will only be accentuated by the Bears dropping their rivalry game. Compound that with the loss in ticket sales revenue, which is the third-largest source of revenue for Power Five athletic departments. And then remember the effects the pandemic has had on people’s financial resources and ability to give or even think about giving.
UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor of finance and chief financial officer has said programs such as the athletic department are supposed to be largely self-sustaining. But with less than one-third of athletic revenue coming from televised athletic events, sustainability is difficult to imagine. From a numbers standpoint, the campus anticipates being $200 million short of its budgetary expectations by the end of fiscal year 2021, after initially anticipating falling short by $340 million. Loss of sporting events was estimated to constitute $33 million in revenue of the $340 million.
Sooner or later, the Bears will be forced to take action. And it will require more than launching a fundraising effort like Cal did this year with the Roll On Campaign. In the video launch of the fundraising campaign, which seeks to raise $15 million in 2020, Athletic Director Jim Knowlton states that Cal implemented a hiring freeze, instituted voluntary pay cuts and froze its merit pay.
Those actions are just the somber beginning for a program that finds itself falling deeper and deeper into a hole of debt. Soon, Cal may be faced with decisions that could include making drastic changes to its coaching staff or cutting teams altogether, as Stanford did near the beginning of the pandemic. It’s naive to think that Cal can proceed with business as usual, simply seeking $5 million more in donations than in a normal year, without any sort of visible, tangible change in the course of teams’ successes.
The pandemic has accelerated the problems faced by businesses across the country, and, at the end of the day, UC Berkeley and its athletic program are businesses. One can blame the Bears’ losses on COVID-19, but neither COVID-19 nor the city of Berkeley’s public health department will pay the bills. Without ample revenue, Cal will be forced to make cuts, and the mid-pandemic Big Game loss all but assures that this dire future is nearer than ever.
Whether or not you are a megadonor, alum or individual who feels a connection to the Cal football program, playing football comes at the cost of something else. Right now, football plays at the expense of other sports waiting for a sunnier day; with limited resources for testing and sanitation, football was prioritized. In the future, though, football may play at the expense of other programs being cut altogether. A football game, much like lunch with colleagues, will never be free.