Creighton will begin the 2020-21 season without fans at its men’s basketball home games, and its athletic department is preparing for a possible $12 million revenue loss if that decision cannot be revisited.
CU made the announcement Monday, just three days after the state logged record numbers for COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.
Athletic department officials have been in regular communication with the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority since the summer in the wake of the pandemic, meeting almost weekly to brainstorm ways to create a safe environment for players on the court while fans cheer them on from the stands.
They do have options, but now is not the time to implement those plans, according to Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen.
“We just felt it was better for us to start conservatively,” he told The World-Herald on Monday. “As we get comfortable and as we see what we need to do — what adjustments we need to make — our hope is that we can gradually add fans as the season progresses.”
Rasmussen said he was satisfied with the in-arena safety measures MECA has established for pandemic-era operations. The CHI Health Center has a social-distancing seating plan. Masks are required. Surfaces are frequently sanitized.
Spokeswoman Kristyna Engdahl said Monday that MECA supported Creighton’s decision.
Fact is, all parties involved are well aware of the latest coronavirus figures: In Nebraska on Friday, there were a record 748 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and a record 2,681 new infections.
“Given the climate today — and it could change in two weeks or two months — but given the climate today, we felt (no fans to start the season) was the best route to take,” Rasmussen said.
If the circumstances do not change, the financial hit on Creighton’s budget would be a substantial one.
That’s why on Monday CU announced a new fundraising drive, Bluejays Persevere, at the same time it revealed that it suspended its season ticketing program until 2021.
Nearly half of the athletic department’s $26 million of revenue in the 2019-20 fiscal year came from men’s basketball ticket sales ($5 million), donations ($5 million) and in-arena sponsorships ($2 million). The department reported that it has used furloughs, salary freezes, travel reductions and other cost-cutting measures to save about $4 million. But it could still face a significant deficit.
“I’ve got to be honest, this is the biggest challenge I’ve faced in my nearly 30 years as athletic director at Creighton,” Rasmussen said in a three-minute video recording to season ticket holders.
The Jays aren’t alone here.
They’re in a conference with 10 other schools whose athletic departments rely heavily on men’s basketball profits. And CU’s the fifth Big East program to announce that fans will not be in home arenas to start the season. Marquette, Connecticut, DePaul and St. John’s all did the same.
Whether it impacts the product on the court remains to be seen.
CU’s home court advantage made a difference during last year’s Big East title run. The Jays were one of 10 major-conference teams to finish with one or fewer home losses last year. They beat teams by an average of 16.2 points per game at the CHI Health Center. Their announced average of 17,314 fans per game ranked fifth in the country.
This season, Creighton’s first home game isn’t until Dec. 1 when its hosts UNO.
The Jays’ full schedule isn’t yet known, although a few other matchups have been announced — CU’s set to face Kennesaw State (Dec. 4), Marquette (Dec. 14) and Xavier (Dec. 23) at the CHI Health Center before Christmas.
It’s possible there will be a limited crowd allowed in the arena by then. Rasmussen hopes so. But he and his department are preparing for the worst-case scenario.