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Scenes from before UGA’s football game against the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020 in Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

The University of Georgia Athletic Association held its first board meeting of 2021 Tuesday afternoon over Zoom. The meeting was the first conducted with athletic director Josh Brooks at the helm and included a brief press conference with Brooks and UGA President Jere Morehead at its conclusion. 

When former Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity updated on the potential budget shortfall for the first fiscal year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he estimated a $55 million deficit. In the first meeting of 2021, Brooks was able to give some more encouraging news in his first meeting as athletic director.

Brooks told the Georgia athletic board the projected budget deficit lowered to $30 million, despite the challenges picked up from managing a pandemic and lowering seating capacity at games. 

“I’m hopeful through these next few months we can shave that down some more as we get closer to the end of this fiscal year,” Brooks said. “I cannot say the words thank you enough to everyone, how everyone has stepped up. We’ve turned a difficult situation into a much more manageable situation. We’re not out of the woods, but we can stay the course, and we’re going to be in good shape.” 

In a presentation to the board, Brooks detailed how a 27% decline in operating expenses from December 2019 to December 2020 coupled with contributions from season ticket holders and the Hartman Fund were critical in lowering Georgia’s projected deficit from the summer. 

After the board meeting, Brooks told the media some of the largest saving measures taken were the lack of recruiting travel due to the NCAA dead period and each sport’s focus on more regional scheduling. He said saving money on travel has resulted in “massive savings.”

But much of the deficit’s reduction was credited to the COVID-19 UGA Athletics Fund, which brought $22.1 million in for UGAAA. Brooks said the donations were the result of communication with donors, which were asked to convert part of their refund or donate money directly.

“We explained to [donors] the deficit we were facing, that we knew we were facing with the loss of revenue,” Brooks said in a post-meeting press conference. “Then, we started explaining to them the additional costs of COVID — of supporting our student-athletes during this time. It’s been documented, the millions we’re spending to test and keep our athletes safe. It’s really a testament more to our donors that have continuously stepped up and supported us.” 

For the modified 2020 football season, 40% of season ticket holders opted in amid the uncertainty, and Georgia football was able to retain 52% of regular season revenue despite 20% capacity in three home games. 

UGAAA also totaled reserves at just under $65 million at the end of the 2020 fiscal year. Vice President for Finance and Administration Ryan Nesbit said after adjusting the figure for the $46.6 million invested in the UGA Foundation’s long-term investment portfolio, $18.3 million is left for allocation in fiscal year 2021. 

In his post-meeting comments to the media, Morehead remained confident in UGAAA’s ability to stay financially well but remained cautious that improvements around COVID-19 restrictions would need to occur. 

“I think we’ve weathered it very well,” Morehead said. “I think we’ve made a lot of sound financial decisions that put us in a good place to finish out this fiscal year and go into the next fiscal year in good shape. Now, of course, that assumes we have a more normal year next year. And we’re all hoping for that at this point, but I think we’ve done very well.”

In terms of facilities, UGAAA remains on track with the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall expansion and renovation project. Phase one will be complete after the G-Day game, and the football team will move in after its completion. Phase two is on schedule to be completed in January 2022. Brooks said the project has raised $71.5 million of its $80 million budget.  

Brooks said this year’s G-Day spring game on April 17 will be held with similar restrictions to fall football, but the full announcement will likely be coming this week. He also said Georgia baseball, which will play its first game this Friday, will have similar seating restrictions at Foley Field within the 20% capacity range.