COVID has devastated Navy athletics' finances. This year, 'we need to have fans.'
By BILL WAGNER | The Capitol | Published: March 12, 2021
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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Sept. 11 shapes up to be a spectacular day at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Navy will be hosting service academy rival Air Force in one of the biggest football games of the season on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Navy athletic officials already have settled on an underlying theme for the day: Honoring all the alumni from the Air Force Academy and Naval Academy who perished on 9/11.
"Unfortunately, both institutions have a number of alums that were victims of that tragedy," Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. "Everything surrounding the Navy-Air Force football game will be about paying tribute to families of those alumni that were lost on that tragic day."
All the basic aspects of a typical Navy football home game will be part of the pregame activities, including the Brigade of Midshipmen march-on and flyover of fighter jets. Other unique elements will be added to make the occasion even more memorable.
Only one thing could ruin what promises to be a remarkable event: An empty stadium.
Because of the pandemic, Navy football played all five of its home games without fans during the 2020 season. Gladchuk made it clear another season of doing that would be devastating to the Naval Academy Athletic Association.
"We've got to be able to manage this upcoming football season in a way that is productive," Gladchuk said. "We can't lose a second football season or else it's going to have a major financial impact on our association and its ability to service the Naval Academy."
It has been one year since coronavirus shut down college athletics with the Navy spring sports teams learning on the afternoon of March 12, 2020, their respective seasons were over.
Navy athletics has managed to navigate a challenging year during which finances increasingly became a significant concern. Gladchuk said revenue from March 2020 through this month fell by 55%.
Most of the losses were tied to the football season without fans with the most costly setback coming when the City of Philadelphia refused to host the Army-Navy game at Lincoln Financial Field.
"We're a self-sustaining business operation. We only get a fraction of our budget, about 5%, through government support," Gladchuk said. "We've gotten through the past year based off borrowing, relying on reserves and cutbacks."
Gladchuk has slashed operating expenses by a considerable amount. Savings came from less travel and fewer overnight stays involving varsity athletic teams and a massive reduction in recruiting budgets across the board.
Fundraising efforts have been stepped up with a sense of urgency. Gladchuk said the NAAA recently completed a "very successful" capital campaign that generated money to sustain operations.
"Our development activities have been extremely aggressive in terms of fundraising and our alumni have been very responsible with meeting their pledges," Gladchuk said. "Through cutbacks and fundraising, we've been able to work our way through this rough period of time."
No amount of ingenuity and creativity will solve the inevitable budget crisis created by a second straight season of no fans at Navy football games, however. NAAA officials have reviewed various scenarios in which Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is filled at 75, 50 or even 25% capacity during the 2021 season.
Anything less than full capacity is painful to consider. An empty stadium is unspeakable.
"If there are fans, we can rebound really quickly and get back on track because we've been able to hold things together. We can look like the Navy championship athletic program in short order," Gladchuk said.
"We need to have fans!"
Navy received some encouraging news on that front Tuesday, when Gov. Larry Hogan announced stadiums could be filled to 50% capacity. Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman adopted the same rule, which should enable NAAA to welcome a broader audience for such big lacrosse games as Army-Navy men and Loyola-Navy women.
Navy has six home games scheduled for the 2021 season, one more than usual. There are some exciting matchups beginning with the Sept. 4 home opener against Marshall, which played in the Conference USA championship game and the Camellia Bowl last season.
That is followed by the Air Force showdown the following Saturday on a day no loyal Navy fan will want to miss.
Cincinnati, the defending American Athletic Conference champion, visits Annapolis on Oct. 23. Central Florida, a two-time champ, comes to town on Oct. 2.
"It's a fantastic home slate and we're anticipating a higher attendance average as a result," Gladchuk said.
Navy athletics cut its losses by convincing a significant number of football season ticket holders to either donate their 2020 payment or apply it to the 2021 campaign.
Navy has 5,000 season ticket holders that account for more than 22,000 seats. Matt Munnelly, senior associate athletic director for ticket operations, said 40% of those fans donated their 2020 payment to the athletic department. Another 40% applied their purchase to the 2021 season ticket package.
"We have awesome fans. They always rally in a time of need," Munnelly said.
Gladchuk said the amount of football season ticket revenue "moved forward" to 2021 was not overly significant. The veteran athletic director, who has been at Navy since September 2001, pointed out that revenue derived from football also includes private suites at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, concessions and parking.
Factor in advertising and corporate sponsorship and the dollars make sense provided there are people in the seats.
"If we fill the stadium on a regular basis, we'll be able to work our way through it," he said.
Of course, the two Navy football games that produce the most income are against archrival Army and Notre Dame. The Midshipmen travel to South Bend, Ind., to meet the Fighting Irish next season in a contest televised nationally by NBC Sports.
Meanwhile, the Army-Navy game is set at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. on Dec. 11. That will be another momentous occasion as organizers plan to commemorate the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in conjunction with the contest.
The Army-Navy gala that is always held the Friday night before the big game will be on Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.
"There is no question it will be an extraordinary weekend," Gladchuk said. "We went specifically to that facility because of their intention to use that occasion to create a respectful tribute to those lost in the collapse of the twin towers."
Gladchuk has spent the past year promising not to eliminate any of Navy's 33 varsity sports. He has also vowed to avoid layoffs or furloughs.
"Those have been my objectives and the driving forces behind how we operated during this whole year of anxiety," he said.
If the typical level of football revenue is not realized, maintain the varsity sports and the coaching staffs may not be possible.
"There would certainly be some other considerations we have to take into account and that would include the priorities I mentioned, which are sports and staff," he said.