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How BYU AD Tom Holmoe negotiated a new schedule and dealt with decreasing revenue during the pandemic

Holmoe is grateful for fans’ sacrifices, and other schools, to make this football season possible

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BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe meets with reporters for his semiannual media Q&A roundtable in Provo on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. Last week, Holmoe held a virtual roundtable via Zoom to field reporters’ questions.

Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

PROVO — As opposing teams were disappearing from the BYU football schedule like Cougartails at a tailgate party, athletic director Tom Holmoe was saddled with a laborious job — trying to find programs willing to play during a pandemic. 

At one point last summer, the Cougars, who are 3-0 and ranked No. 15 in the country, were down to two opponents — Houston and North Alabama. Holmoe replenished the schedule with 10 games, not including the Army contest that was postponed in mid-September. 

Last week, Holmoe revealed what it was like going through the rescheduling process, and he also addressed other salient topics, during a 38-minute question-and-answer session with members of the media via Zoom. 

Here are some excerpts from that interview: 

Question: How has putting together a new schedule in a short period of time changed the way you’ll schedule in future?

Holmoe: It’s an asterisk year in scheduling. There were so many rules that were broken. Not ‘legal’ rules. You just need so much assistance. You need a lot of people taking some risks with you and you take risks with them. These games are scheduled out so far in advance that even if I learned something I probably wouldn’t be able to change it until 2030. One really good thing that’s come out of it is there are way more conversations occurring with athletic directors and that’s been a real positive. I’ve spoken with ADs on multiple phone calls about games that we’ll never play. Some people say, ‘Well, that’s a waste of time.’ No, it’s not. It’s a great connection. We’ve learned, we’ve shared best practices during COVID even though the games never really came to fruition. If I’ve learned anything, it’s I probably could improve my communication with other ADs and my connections with other ADs. I’m going to call other ADs and just ask how their golf game is going. How’s their family? Athletics have become a big business now. During this COVID time, I think we’ve all taken a step back and gotten back to the old-school relationships, which I appreciate.

Q: What is the athletic department doing to try to recoup revenue at a time when fans can’t attend games?

Holmoe: Most of the schools across the country are realizing there are two parts to the equation — one is reducing your expenses and the other one is to try to find creative ways to increase your revenue. Those are both difficult challenges. We’re undertaking both of those right now. Some of them are in the works and some of them are on whiteboards. Those challenging times of not being able to put people in the stands without your season-ticket base is challenging for our fans and it’s challenging for us financially. I would say that we’ve had a fair number of our season-ticket holders that have donated their full season-ticket contribution for this year to the athletic department. And they’ll come back next year and buy new tickets next year. It’s rare and it’s extraordinary. And I’m super grateful because the number that have done that chips away at our deficit already. As an athletic director that’s trying to run a business, you can’t be more thankful. … We also asked many of them that had bought season tickets this year, if they wouldn’t donate it, if we could carry over their money to next year. That allows us to hold on to a large amount of money that we can make work for us. Those are two examples of revenues we can keep and a new revenue stream. It’s a humbling experience to know and hear. Some of the people have a lot money to do it and I’m grateful for that. And some of them are the widow’s mite. Some of the stories of the people that have donated is because they want to see BYU strong coming out of this. Remarkable.

Q: When the schedule was whittled down to just a couple of games as other conferences decided to play a conference-only schedule or to not play at all, did BYU consider not playing in 2020?

Holmoe: We never wanted to concede but it was a realistic, viable possibility. And it wasn’t so much that that’s what BYU wanted, but we always felt from the beginning that we weren’t going to be one of the first ones out. We were going to try to hang in there, predicated on health and well-being. That was a difficult balance early on for everybody in the NCAA, to say, ‘Are we doing the right thing by trying to hang on, where we’re not quite sure about how COVID works?’ That’s why you saw some people make different decisions over here and some people make different decisions over here. I don’t have hard feelings about any of them. Everybody had to make decisions based on their own unique situation at their school, their personnel, their county and state health departments. There were a lot of factors. I didn’t want to try to judge anybody making difficult decisions at that time. We kind of put our arms around each other here at BYU and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ We had daily and hourly meetings to proceed. That was our strategy — to proceed the best we can, how we can. Some days we take three steps forward and the next day, we take two steps back. When it got into the dog-day afternoons of scheduling, I’d take three steps forward and 10 steps back. Those were days when I just wasn’t sure. Those were the days where it wasn’t necessarily going to be BYU shutting down, but there wouldn’t be enough teams to play. That’s when you saw that we had to make a decision that was going to be based on the SEC, the Big 12 and the ACC. Those were the three that were still out there making a decision. If one of those three would’ve have decided not to play, then college football would have closed down. But because the three did decide to play, it allowed us, BYU, to continue our process. That didn’t mean it was going to go all the way. It didn’t help us a lot because they all went conference-only and we had some games lined up with those conferences. But it did allow us a foot in the door, to keep the door open and we just continued. There were a lot of fortuitous breaks. A lot of things unfolded positively to where we got this schedule. Look, I’m the spokesperson for it but believe me, there were hundreds of people that helped BYU put this schedule together. I’m grateful for every one of them. When I say hundreds, there are a lot of people that I talked to about games that had multiple discussions and we’re not going to play them in 2020. But they tried. That gave me hope that we could do it … It’s not about the schedule, it’s about the games. In the end, I’m a former BYU football player, I’m a former BYU coach, and I’m a current BYU fan and I’m in it with everybody else.

Q: Have you had to talk to the players about being careful with COVID?

Holmoe: The players know, for sure. Canceling of a game is a big thing … This year, it’s something people have to go, ‘Oh, wow, there’s going to be a lot of these.’ I read somewhere that 25% of the scheduled games have been canceled. That’s a huge amount. You’re going to see more and more. We had an NFL game canceled. Yes, everybody understands that this is a possibility. … It’s coming from the players now. When they miss a game, they start to realize, individually, ‘I can do more.’ It’s not me going around saying, ‘Boys, be good.’ They all get it.