CARBONDALE — SIU Football is a very expensive tradition — more than $4 million a year the last three fiscal years, according to public records — but it is a community tradition.
Five former Salukis are currently in the NFL, and SIU’s Oct. 30 game against Southeast Missouri State could be both programs’ first major athletic event since the coronavirus shut everything down in March.
“We’re excited that it’s gonna be on Channel 12. We’re excited that we’re gonna be able to get fans in the stands, and give our season ticket holders and their families an opportunity to be at a game, and watch some football,” SIU coach Nick Hill said. “Even though it’s one game, it’s exciting, I know, for our fan base, for our players’ families to come and watch ’em. As we’ve learned through this time, you can’t take anything for granted, and playing a college, Division I football game, you definitely can’t.”
The break from the Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule — the league is scheduled to start back up next spring — and the two other scheduled non-conference games was a welcome relief for SIU’s budget, however. The Salukis were set to earn $500,000 for a game at Wisconsin, then a $300,000 game at Kansas after the Badgers and the Big Ten Conference temporarily called it off this fall, but road games are close to being as expensive as home games here. When you add in all the set-up for Saluki Row, the cleanup, the staff for tickets and concessions, the school can spend close to $75,000 just to stage a home game, according to athletic director Liz Jarnigan.
Even with guarantees with competing at Florida Atlantic in 2016, Memphis in 2017 and Ole Miss in 2018, the Saluki football program lost more than $2 million every year, according to financial records sent to the NCAA and obtained by The Southern Illinoisan via the Freedom of Information Act. Ticket sales fell for the third straight year in 2019, averaging 6,456 fans per game, when the Salukis won five straight games for the first time in years and nearly made the playoffs for the first time in 10 years.
Ticket sales for the last two football seasons, 2018 and 2019, were the worst since 2000 and 2001. More than 8,500 turned out to see SIU take on SEMO in the first home game of the 2018 season, but it turned out to be the biggest crowd of the season. Only 6,435 fans came to the Homecoming/Hall of Fame game against Indiana State in late October, and less than 5,000 showed up for the last two home games of the season in November in the 15,000-seat Saluki Stadium.
Football here, however, is more than money. SIU won a national championship in 1983 and made the postseason seven straight years between 2003-09, reaching the FCS semifinals in 2007 when Hill was the starting quarterback.
“It contributes to the overall culture of our university,” Jarnigan said. “We are competing for students, and enrollment, and some of our top competitors in the region compete in football, and it would be devastating for us not to have that atmosphere and culture as a draw as we compete for our area’s top and brightest students. For me, football, along with our other sports, is a way for our institution to help bring a community together, and to foster a sense of community pride and spirit you really can’t put a value on.”
Even pride and spirit take money, however, and the coronavirus did not make things easier for SIU this fall. Jarnigan didn’t replace herself when she was elevated to athletic director after Jerry Kill abruptly left in September last year, and took on the chief financial officer role when the person in that position left this year. The Salukis left several positions vacant when they became open, including a football operations position, two academic advisor positions, three jobs in development, and the director of the ticket office. SIU has since moved an internal candidate into the ticket office director spot.
SIU also cut more than 20 graduate assistant positions from the previous year, and has saved more than $3 million. Jarnigan challenged every sport to cut 25% from its budget this fiscal year, and has been able to save some money with the NCAA’s recruiting dead period that won’t expire until January 2021.
The university may have to ask athletics to cut even more, which could make keeping all of SIU’s 17 sports even more difficult.
“That has been incredibly damaging to our operation, and we are now looking at a very, very large sum that we’re being asked to cut,” Jarnigan said. “We’re having to take a look at everything. And taking a look at everything is a very painful exercise, and part of the exercise for me is figuring out a way we can manage without cutting sports.”