Pay to Play: Financial impact of COVID-19 testing on college athletics

Most industries across the country have taken financial hits during this pandemic and athletics...
Most industries across the country have taken financial hits during this pandemic and athletics are no exception.(WTOC)
Updated: Jan. 8, 2021 at 6:43 PM EST
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STATESBORO, Ga. (WTOC) - Most industries across the country have taken financial hits during this pandemic. Athletic departments are no exception.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests and an interview with first-year Director of Athletics Jared Benko, it is known that the Georgia Southern University Department of Athletics will surpass the million-dollar spending mark easily on COVID-19 testing this school year. But they say that’s simply the cost of doing business.

Inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Dec. 23, 2020, Georgia Southern football became the first team in the country to reach the 13-game mark. Something that normally isn’t noteworthy. But in a year where canceling games was as commonplace as actually playing one, it was quite the feat.

Each team can choose whether to accept a bowl bid, and some schools decided not to. Athletic Director Jared Benko said for one, he felt the student-athletes on the football team had earned the right to play, but also, it helped generate income. Income they may need to offset some major expenses.

“Unfortunately, we had some Thursday night games get canceled this year, but for us, playing on the 23rd on ESPN, advertising-wise, that’s a seven-figure type of asset, and that’s great branding for the university,” Benko said.

Records show that the athletic department entered a contract with Macon Occupational Medicine (MOM) on July 27 to help administer COVID-19 tests to student-athletes, coaches, and staff. The contract states that Macon Occupational will come on-site one to two times weekly to test and it is anticipated they will test up to 400 individuals a week.

Macon Occupational will provide results 24 to 72 hours post-collection.

It also states that Macon Occupational’s medical director will provide medical direction should someone test positive, and report that to the local department of public health. The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and Georgia Southern are responsible for contact tracing.

Between June 1, 2020 and Dec. 9, 2020 - the date our data request was filled - the Georgia Southern Athletic Department reports that they had 185 positive COVID-19 tests out of 7,715.

Georgia Southern pays $100 per test. The athletic department has spent more than $771,000 thus far on tests.

In the fiscal year 2021 budget, it shows a $438,939 allocated to sports medicine operating, but Benko says they’ve obviously surpassed what they expected to spend. Now, they’ve dipped into unallocated funds.

“Going into the year we had some CARES dollars, north of 280, or so in CARES dollars, and then of course, if you think back to when budgets are developed, back in the springtime, you know, to sit here and try to forecast out the next eight to 12 months was really difficult, not knowing the testing apparatus and whatnot, so we budgeted conservatively. But yeah, obviously that number has been exceeded, because of the amount of testing we’re doing,” Benko said.

Benko added that they’re also investing heavily into mental health services for student-athletes during this time and relying heavily on fundraising to keep everything afloat; something he gives credit to the fan base and donors for helping with.

Over at Savannah State University, they’re operating a little differently, according to athletics spokesman Joshua Peacock.

All student-athletes will have to submit proof of a negative test before they get on campus. Once on campus, they will be immediately administered an antigen test.

They will also enter a bubble within their sport, similar to the NBA’s for the semester.

The university granted athletics COVID tests, as Historically Black Colleges and Universities were given grant money, so testing isn’t coming from the athletics budget.

Since they suspended fall and winter revenue sports, earnings are nil, but they do collect from student fees, which remained the same for this year.

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