grange grove

The closed main gate to Grange Grove is shown Thursday outside Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

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For years, Illinois and other Power 5 athletic programs justified juicy salaries and outrageously excessive spending with a pat statement: “This is our marketplace. Our expenditures are derived from TV, gate receipts and donations. This is not taxpayer money.”

The “no tax money” answer usually quiets rabble-rousers, like those who reacted when The News-Gazette’s Tom Kacich pointed out the DIA has grown in 25 years from 71 employees to 300-plus, with about 70 now earning $100,000 or more.

No public money? OK, but where will the outlandish retirement benefits come from? How are all the utilities handled? If student fees are not taxpayer dollars, what are they?

But let’s not get picky. The DIA has generally fulfilled its mandate of operating independently.

Varsity athletics has worked smoothly, even as this hybrid UI department more than quadrupled its expenditures during the lifetime of current UI athletes ... ballooning despite subpar football ticket sales.

COVID-19 creates chaos

It was full speed ahead, until it wasn’t. Overnight, a microscopic and highly-contagious virus changed everything. And folks are asking: “What now?”

Even if football is played — which seems to be a 50-50 proposition — last year’s DIA budget level of $121 million is no longer attainable because attendance will tumble and TV distributions won’t reach $53 million again.

Problems abound. Those seven-, five- and three-year leases on premium seating more than a decade ago aren’t suited for 30-year mortgages. Some can’t renew.

Remember, the DIA was in hock before 2020. It was just two years ago that the UI was listed fourth in indebtedness among the nation’s athletic departments. The annual debt service, reduced previously by some advance payments, remains in access of $22 million.

Now, if the overall numbers boil over, guess who is ultimately on the line for the DIA debt service, plus the guaranteed athletic scholarship fees, plus the staff salaries, plus the multi-team expenses? The taxpayer-backed university, that’s who ... and the UIUC campus is already millions in arrears of last year’s $3.1 billion operating budget.

Worse to come?

The level of disaster expressed so far is a best-case scenario. It assumes football kickoff in 43 days, simultaneous with the arrival of thousands of students on campus ... an absolute playground for an unseen respiratory virus.

Big Ten leaders took this into account with a one-size-fits-all decision to cancel all nonconference sports in the fall. The decision was borne out of the legitimate concern that smaller schools couldn’t match the health protocols (tests) of Big Ten members, and the four September dates could be used to spread 10 football games over a 14-week period, allowing for emergency postponements.

Impact widespread

If Big Ten leaders decide in August to switch to spring football games, it would be a last-ditch gamble to rescue a portion of the TV distributions they rely on.

Without that revenue, Division I sports becomes London in 1942, Berlin in 1944. Unrecognizable. Without football, the repercussions would diminish an array of sports nationwide, and eliminate some. It could mean the end, or at least further delay, of the UI’s downtown hockey enterprise. With the president’s office belatedly becoming more vigilant in approving construction, the timeline for new baseball and softball facilities and the $30 million Ubben upgrade would likely be extended.

So here we are. At the mercy of an unseen enemy, which may or may not return if you’ve had it, and may be transmitted in ways you least expect. We’re not even sure how deaths in the 18-22 age range will compare with those caused by its cousin, the flu.

There’s so much we don’t know. But we do know the no-tax-dollars model won’t work without football.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.