University Of Wyoming Athletics Is Hoping To Manage COVID-19 As It Tries To Recover From The Last Year
The last year was a tough one for the University of Wyoming (UW) athletics program, from budget cuts to major losses of revenue due to canceled games and limited fans. UW Athletics Director Tom Burman has his fingers crossed this year. Wyoming football is poised to have a strong bounce-back year and ticket sales have been brisk, but the Delta variant has him nervous.
Bob Beck: Last year you had budget cuts to go through, you had the COVID-19 issues, how's the athletic department doing right now?
Tom Burman: We've taken a hit. We are as lean as any time in my tenure, that's for sure. And that's been quite a long tenure. So it's pretty tight. But we're down about 15 employees, and we're the only unit on the entire campus, we might be the only unit in the entire state, that voluntarily took salary reductions. So every employee who makes over $40,000 took a reduction in salary, and it was a tiered approach based on how much you made. And that's an ongoing reduction, it's not one time. Obviously, our goal is to start to move it back up. But we had to make some very difficult decisions. We wanted to avoid cutting programs, and we wanted to avoid damaging student-athletes to a point where we thought it would impact our recruiting. And so it's been 18 months that I don't want to live through again. But I think we've come out of it healthy, we're not in a bad financial position. And actually, this fiscal year, we have a chance to have a situation where I think we can start to look at putting some money back into the program if all things go as budgeted both on the expense side and revenue, and that takes into consideration a limited impact of the Delta variant. Obviously for getting events canceled or reduced attendance, or if we have to spend significant dollars in testing, or significant dollars and on some other issues related to COVID-19, that will change the dynamic. But as of today, I feel pretty good.
BB: You talk about testing and I was curious about this. I've been watching other sports and am curious how we are having to test here. Is it as rigorous as it was last year or what is the process for student-athletes?
TB: It is not as rigorous. You know, the NCAA has come out with a re-socialization, and it's just recommendations, and we are following most of those. Right now, today, our policy regarding testing is just whatever the university policy is. Plus, anyone who has symptoms, whether that's a coach, staff, or student-athlete, will be tested immediately. When we travel, some venues are going to require a negative COVID test prior to competition. Sometimes it could be on-site, sometimes you could test in Laramie, and then go there and show that you were clean. It just varies on the locale where we're going. And those are changing every day. And getting more and more restrictive. So I wouldn't? say we weren't going to end up testing our student-athletes more than we are today, but less than last year. Last year, we tested three times a week basically, most of the cost of that was covered through the conference. There is no plan for the conference to cover that this year. So we have a small budget in our expense line item for testing. The university has an expense line item for testing for student-athletes, and we'll combine the two and try to get through the year.
BB: Three weeks ago (football coach) Craig Bohl came out and said 96 percent of the football team had been vaccinated. So I was curious, what's been the process to encourage athletes to get vaccinated and how do you think you are doing in the rest of the department?
TB: Well, we're doing great in football. We probably won't get any higher than that, there are a handful of young men who have said there they have no intention of getting vaccinated. And so that number probably isn't going to change. But we did a great job with football led by Coach Bohl. He is passionate about getting the vaccine. He builds a culture with the team and the independent thinking spirit struggles in his program. That's just the culture they create, which I respect. So they're there and that group, they think they're going to be really good. They think they can win a lot of games, and they understand that winning is their goal. And so most of those kids just jumped in and said 'Let's get vaccinated.' A lot of that is led by leadership by captains, older kids that can kind of set the tone. We have other programs, and our business is similar to anything. We have demographics in each sport. So if you look at a sport like wrestling, that's more rural, those kids are not vaccinating at the rate that we would like, that I would like. But we can't force it and we won't force it. The reality of it is, kids who were unvaccinated are going to be quarantined at some point during the year, and probably multiple times during the year. And that will create drama for them and their teammates, but it's just what we're going to deal with in 2021. But as far as how did we do it? More than anything, education. They are a somewhat captive audience. So we had multiple meetings, zoom calls with our team doc, the NCAA provided some good documentation that allowed it to be shared with our kids, it kind of explains the risks of COVID, the risk of the vaccine and at least to the best of anyone's ability, as of today. Most kids chose to take the vaccine.
BB: It would strike me that having great attendance and a winning football team would be as important this year as anytime I can remember.
TB: I would agree. I was recently drafting a document and I stated that fair or not, this might be the most important year in our history. There's a lot of change going on in college athletics, the financial implications are greater than ever before due to reserves being spent down and just getting back on track. So I don't disagree with you, Bob, I think it's a very important year. And I'm praying and knocking on wood and hoping that we don't have a situation where we have to go backwards and restrict attendance or cancel games.
BB: We hear about things like the Las Vegas Raiders requiring vaccinations. What are you doing to try and keep things as safe as possible?
TB: Well, you know, we're in a different political environment. And there is no intention to mandate a COVID pass or a COVID vaccine requirement to attend games. I don't see that changing at the University of Wyoming. So more than anything... education. The good news is the first sport out of the gate where there's large attendance is football. And the data is pretty solid, that outdoor venues… and I had to laugh because I read in a publication that outdoor venues where there's winds in the neighborhood of five to seven miles an hour make it unlikely for the disease to spread or less likely for the disease to spread. I read this and I started laughing. They call that windy? I said, 'Gosh, we haven't had a five to seven mile an hour wind very often.' So the good news is, outdoor events tend to not be as dangerous as indoor venues. Now we have the Wildcatter, and we have the press box, and we are recommending and promoting to those ticket holders and to the media that they wear a mask. But they don't have to and we are not limiting space as of right now. So you will be near each other. There will be people around you this year, which wasn't the case during the two games we had last year. If I was unvaccinated, and I had Wildcatter tickets, I would probably sell them or wear a mask. I mean that's just the reality of the situation. It's going to be crowded. And it's probably not smart to be unvaccinated up there, but that's Tom Burman talking and they have that right to make that choice and I appreciate them supporting the Cowboys.
BB: How does it look attendance-wise? Has there been any hesitation in buying tickets from what you can tell?
TB: Attendance so far has been, I mean, literally off the hook. And our ticket sales are matching our 2019 season, which was our best revenue season in history and one of our best attendance seasons in history. Montana State, the home opener, is trending for a sellout, but even if ticket sales slow down and we get an average student attendance, we're gonna have 25-26,000 people there, which is just fantastic. So attendance is good, or is trending good, I should say. And there seems to be a pent-up demand to get out and, as I like to say, celebrate Wyoming and get together. So hopefully people are smart. And hopefully, this Delta variant doesn't just wreak hell in the State of Wyoming. That's all I can say.