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Georgia athletics prepared for ‘what if,’ more than $100 million in reserve fund

ATHENS —The University of Georgia athletics department could withstand the financial blow should the college football season be canceled on account of the coronavirus pandemic with more than $100 million available in reserve funds.

UGA athletics director Greg McGarity never dreamed the Bulldogs’ reserve fund could be tested to this extent — and it still might not, with the world’s finest scientists working to save lives and restore order.

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There are 330,891 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., including 7,558 in Georgia and 72 in UGA’s home of Clarke County per the latest update on at the time of this publication (April 7).

The financial impact associated with medical costs, lost wages and social distancing provisions continues to skyrocket. Football season represents a deadline of sorts for a collegiate sports revenue model the relies heavily upon the sport.

Former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer famously said that, “Football is the engine that drives the revenue train.”

At Georgia, the annual football revenue is approximately $70 million between ticket sales, seat donations and other peripheral income, not including Magill Society donations.

And yet, should this season be derailed, UGA’s “Rainy Day Fund” has the means to withstand the equivalent of a financial hurricane.

“We are in a position to weather the storm for a period of time due to the conservative approach that’s been a part of Georgia athletics dating back to the days of Joel Eaves,” said McGarity, who assumed his role in September of 2010.

The same can’t be said for the majority of other programs in the FBS ranks. Just 41 percent of Power 5 schools and 26 percent of Group of 5 schools have a reserve fund, according to data obtained from a recent survey by LEAD1 that appeared in a Learfield/IMG College-sponsored newsletter in April.

“We’re really in healthy shape, and we’re one of the few that are,” McGarity said. “You can only imagine the angst with institutions that don’t have the financial reserves that we have.”

What is the reserve fund?

“We see it as our rainy day fund,” McGarity told DawgNation. “It’s there to meet certain expectations and obligations that we have.”

The fund is made up of money accrued from donations, unused revenue from previous years and investment income.

Per the winter UGA board meeting, Georgia has a projected $17,879,325 remaining from the (fiscal year) 2020 reserves, along with $48,561,020 from long-term investments of reserves — a total of $66,440,345.

UGA deputy athletic director of finance Stephanie Ransom — a former Bulldogs’ All-American soccer player and marketing major — said there’s an additional $36,500,000 in general endowment money. That makes the total money available in reserve fund $102,940,345.

McGarity explained that “our best business practices recommends we have at least three months of operating expenses on hand” and in the reserve fund at all times.

For example, Georgia has a $153 million annual athletic budget. Three months of that budget equals $38.25 million.  So even setting aside that prescribed (not mandated) $38.25 million, along with the debt services of approximately $13 million UGA would still have $64,690,345 at its disposal.

UGA legend Vince Dooley, the Bulldogs’ head football coach (1964-1988) and athletic director (1979-2004), served in a more conservative era, athletic budgets nowhere near today’s skyrocketing numbers.

Dooley indicated last Sunday that Georgia, even then,  factored worst-case scenarios into its financial planning.

“…. In case the worst possible thing could happen,” Dooley told columnist Mark Bradley on Sunday. “I’m sure that (current UGA administrators) are doing the same thing. You’ve got to have that kind of reserve in case you get into a catastrophe, and this could be a catastrophe.”

Magill Society Magic

Georgia had approximately $97.7 million in the reserve fund in June of 2011, the fiscal year McGarity took office. And yet, athletics has invested more than $200 million in facilities in the past decade while still increasing the reserves.

“The difference maker has been the Magill Society,” McGarity said. “If we didn’t have those resources coming in from those 1,200 (1,198) donors things would be drastically different.”

The Magill Society was founded in Sept. of 2015. At the end of that fiscal year, the reserve fund number had dipped to $74.5 million, because UGA had more than $20 million of work occurring at various facilities, including the indoor football building.

McGarity makes no qualms about it, the Magill Society has been a game-charger and is at the heart of the Bulldogs’ ability to maintain a strong — and now pivotal — reserve fund.

“They have donated or pledged more than $145 million toward our facilities (dating back to Sept. 2015,” McGarity said. “Just think of our world if we didn’t have the Magill Society step up. How would we pay for all of these new facilities.”

Non-football projects, such as the soccer grandstand renovation (2018), the equestrian facility (2019) and the tennis facility renovation (Feb., 2020), continue to utilize reserve funds.

Georgia football, meanwhile, has become competitive in the football facilities arms race with Magill Society funds, which have coincided with the immediate success football coach Kirby Smart.

Kirby’s impact

Smart, much like the Magill Society, has been a game-changer in his own right. The athletics’ budget game is the same, but with Smart leading the Bulldogs’ program to elite status on an annual basis, the stakes are higher.

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Staff and recruiting costs have increased since Smart was hired. Some $173 million has been spent on football facilities since the 2016 season, including $81 million going toward a new football building right now.

It’s a game of catch-up. According to one recent comparison, Georgia football facilities ranked just 8th in the SEC.

McGarity, who has worked alongside Smart during the Bulldogs’ current football boom, said if not for Magill donations, UGA would need to take more drastic measures to stay competitive in the football facilities arms race.

“We’d have had to do one of three things,” McGarity explained. “One, we wouldn’t have been able to build these sort of facilities, or two, we would have had to increase our ticket prices substantially.

“Or three, we would have had to drain the majority of our reserves.”

But with Smart leading Georgia to three consecutive SEC Championship Games — along with a Rose Bowl victory, a Sugar Bowl victory and a College Football Playoff Championship Game appearance in the past three years — the funds have continued to roll in.

Checks and balances

Collegiate athletics financial portfolios are a complex web of funds chiefly generated from designated league money, donations, seat licenses and ticket revenue and endowments.

There are checks and balances at each institutions, but they are often applied differently, unique to the respective schools’ priorities and financial strategy.

Georgia, over the years, has been criticized by many for not spending as aggressively as rival programs during the facilities arms race.

Former UGA assistant and current Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt most notably called out the school for its lack of an indoor football facility near the end of Mark Richt’s head coaching tenure.

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But Georgia, pre-Magill Society, simply didn’t have the same revenue model in place to spend liberally while maintaining what many are now realizing is an integral reserve fund.

McGarity, himself, took much of the blame for the school’s conservative approach even though it pre-dated him back to Eaves and Dooley in the 1960s.

“What we do know is we’ve been fortunate to sleep at night throughout many years knowing we have the finical stability to weather a storm,” McGarity said. “We just didn’t know it could be a Category 5 Hurricane.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that we won’t have to utilize reserve funds or go down that path without football in the fall.”

But should that day come, Georgia athletics is well-prepared to hunker down like few others.

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