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North Carolina's largest universities spent $5 million on student-athlete COVID-19 testing

NC State spent the most on COVID-19 tests for student-athletes, followed by UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The three largest public universities in North Carolina spent a combined $5 million testing student-athletes for COVID-19 last school year. 

The added expense proved costly at a time when fans weren't allowed in the stands, games were canceled and athletic departments lost money.

Records show UNC Charlotte alone spent more than $1 million in Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) money on thousands of COVID-19 tests for student-athletes. For comparison, the university spent roughly $1.4 million in HEERF funds improving technology for distance and hybrid learning, according to quarterly reports.

COVID-19 cost the Charlotte 49ers multiple football games last year, including a game at the University of Tennessee that would have come with a $1.3 million paycheck. With the loss of that "guarantee" game and lost money in ticket sales throughout the season, the university reports the athletic department lost $2.2 million in revenue during the 2020-2021 school year.

"We took some revenue hits last year," UNC Charlotte Deputy Athletic Director Darin Spease said. "It was something that we did feel."

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Win, lose or stay home, the testing bill kept increasing. Public records show UNC Charlotte spent anywhere from thousands to more than $100,000 at a time buying COVID-19 tests, ranging in price from $60 to $95 apiece.

"We had very robust testing protocols last year," Spease said. "We had to do that throughout the year to be able to compete ... It's a substantial hit, but it's something, again, if we want to compete and the institution made the decision we're going to compete, it was a necessary thing to do."

WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to the Defenders team by emailing money@wcnc.com.

Spease said the university followed Conference USA and the NCAA's testing rules, which required up to three tests a week per athlete for some sports. University records show federal pandemic dollars helped cover the added costs.

"The institution was able to help us out with the testing cost," Spease said. "It is certainly something on a year-to-year basis we wouldn't be able to sustain long-term, but we were able to get through this year without having to change a lot of what we did."

UNC-Chapel Hill felt a similar testing expense last school year. The university reported its athletic department spent $1.2 million on student-athlete COVID-19 testing.

"Student-athletes also participated in the Carolina Together Testing Program, but we do not have a breakdown of those costs," a university spokesperson said. "Tests for students, including student-athletes, that were conducted through the routine Carolina Together Testing Program were paid for primarily through funding through the CARES Act and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund."

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Although the university started out the pandemic projecting up to $40 million in lost revenue, UNC-Chapel Hill reported in July the athletic department trimmed its shortfall to under $6 million.

North Carolina State University, which announced in July its athletic department managed to balance its budget, spent a reported $2.8 million on athletic COVID testing, according to a spokesperson.

"This is an added cost that I don't think people really talk about that obviously is there," Washington University in St. Louis Sports Business Program Director Dr. Patrick Rishe said. "It is absolutely a cost of doing business. Ultimately, we've got to keep people safe."

Credit: AP
The Charlotte 49ers mascot during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

Not only is Rishe a sports business expert, but he's also a UNC Charlotte alum. With continued COVID-related costs, Rishe thinks universities need to come up with creative ways to make more money in the new pandemic world. He suggests they should consider following the lead of pro-sports teams and start allowing advertising on uniforms.

"I would encourage UNC Charlotte to consider this," Rishe said. "I think that college athletics in general, and certainly schools like Charlotte, should look into that as just another venue of generating revenues for their institution. Can you pass up those streams of revenue, even if you're a university? I think it's going to be hard for schools to do that, especially those not in the Power 5."

RELATED: NCAA adopts temporary rules allowing athletes to earn money off name, image and likeness

He said the dollar figures associated with testing are just another example of how COVID-19 vaccines could benefit the public.

"I would be strongly encouraging or requiring vaccinations," he said. "If people are vaccinated, you can reduce the cost and stress on the university for having to pay for COVID-19 testing.

UNC Charlotte is hopeful the 2021-2022 school year will play out much differently on the field and in the check register.

"It will be different this year in a good way," Spease said.

According to Spease, about 75% of student-athletes are vaccinated, which means, based on current protocols, only the remaining 25% will need weekly COVID tests and far fewer tests at that.

"We're going to be testing our unvaccinated student-athletes and staff once a week," he said. "We're really down to a smaller percentage of our student-athletes and staff that do need to be tested on a weekly basis and again, it's one test versus potentially three."

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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