CHAMPAIGN — Josh Whitman’s projection for the financial hit from the COVID-19 pandemic on Illinois’ Division of Intercollegiate Athletics to fall between $12 million and $18 million for fiscal year 2021.
The reality was closer to best-case scenario than worst. Illinois’ deficit hit $13.5 million in FY21, but the recovery in the last year put the athletic department on firmer financial ground following what was essentially a lost year because of the pandemic.
“It is, I think it’s worth noting, one of if not the smallest COVID deficits in the entire Big Ten,” Whitman said. “We always want to break even. That’s always the objective. It’s too early for me to predict where we’ll land this year. I don’t know that we will break even, but I anticipate it will be a much more manageable deficit than a year ago and one that we expect will right itself in the next year or two.”
Some of the austerity measures Illinois put in place to handle the primary challenges of the pandemic a year ago — no fans in the stands and less money from the Big Ten — weren’t possible because of a return to a more normal sports year.
That included costs for the typical travel involved for all 21 sports for both competition and recruiting.
Getting fans back to State Farm Center, Huff Hall and Memorial Stadium made a significant difference financially. Men’s basketball set a program record for ticket sales, volleyball posted its second-highest revenue in program history and football saw student ticket sales jump 70 percent in the first year of the Bret Bielema era.
“I think if you were in the building, you saw the great following our students were showing for the football team,” Whitman said. “We had student sellouts at least in three of our home games. I expect that to continue as we head into this new season.”
Even with gains made in ticket sales, Whitman alluded to more room for growth.
“What we did experience was it felt like there was still some what I would call softness to attendance,” Whitman said. “It’s been well documented there’s been a national decline in in-person sporting attendance basically in all different kinds of sports. It’s difficult to know causation. What is it due to that national appetite? Or was it due to the pandemic and people still having some uneasiness being around other people?
“I don’t know that this year will still be a fair picture for what post-pandemic will look like for us. We hope fiscal year ’23 will hopefully provide that picture. It will be a much-improved picture from where we were a year ago.”
Another source of revenue in the last year-plus came from selling more than 70 percent of the vacant lots in the Stone Creek neighborhood that were gifted along with what’s now Atkins Golf Club. In the last 18 months, 74 of the 104 lots have been sold.
“They had been largely stagnant in their sales before we took control of the land, but those 74 sales have now generated almost $4 million in revenue that’s shared between DIA and a couple other campus units,” Whitman said.
While Illinois took a financial hit because of the pandemic, fundraising hasn’t waned. The DIA is projected to finish FY22 with more than $30 million in donations, which would be a fifth straight year that mark was met and mostly surpassed. The annual fund, which is a part of that $30 million, is also up 15 percent from a year ago.
The end of FY22 also marks the completion of the eight-year “With Illinois” fundraising campaign.
“We had a university goal of raising $300 million during that eight-year period to support Illinois athletics,” Whitman said. “We won’t have the final numbers for some time now. The fiscal year ends on June 30. It then takes a couple of months to reconcile the books and put the finishing touches on things.
“It looks like we will finish somewhere north of $320 million raised over the course of that eight-year campaign. That $320 million comes from over 117,000 distinct gifts that have been made by over 21,000 different donors.”
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is [email protected], and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).