Sports programs are starting to fall like dominoes as college athletics departments face unprecedented financial challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.
The baseball programs at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and at Furman University in South Carolina, which were eliminated this week, are the latest casualties among more than a dozen Division I athletics teams to have been cut nationwide since last month.
B. David Ridpath, associate professor of sports business at Ohio University and interim president of the Drake Group, a national nonprofit advocacy organization, said he believes some college leaders are conveniently using COVID-19's economic impact as a reason for trimming sports, instead of implementing other cost-cutting measures.
“There’s a lot of fat that can be cut before sports being dropped,” said Ridpath, a former wrestling coach at Ohio University who previously served as an athletics administrator at Weber State University.
“I think dropping sports is basically a knee-jerk reaction and many of the schools are using the pandemic as an excuse for something they already wanted to do. There may come a time where dropping a sport is a viable solution, but it should be the last one and based on many different things.”
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All but three of the 15 programs that have reportedly been eliminated at Division I colleges including Cincinnati, Old Dominion, Akron, Central Michigan, East Carolina and Florida International are men’s sports, which are often the first to be trimmed as schools, especially those with football programs, strive to comply with Title IX, the federal law requiring gender equity for participation and scholarship opportunities.
“Dropping a sport and saying you are doing it for gender equity I think is an excuse,” Ridpath said.
“People don’t realize spending on football and men’s basketball has quadrupled since Title IX enforcement. There are opportunities to actually keep costs (for revenue sports) down. It’s not Title IX’s fault that male salaries and spending has gone up. We can reduce costs in football and help save a wrestling program (such as that which Old Dominion eliminated). We just haven’t done that.”
$3.6 billion in tuition
Ridpath said he believes a college’s decision to eliminate nonrevenue sports, such as baseball, which spreads a total of 11.7 scholarships across 35-player rosters, could “backfire and hurt the overall university enrollment-wise” as schools lose tuition-paying students.
According to the latest data, a record 499,217 student-athletes, many of which pay tuition, participated in NCAA championship sports across all three divisions during the 2018-19 academic year.
The Intercollegiate Coach Association Coalition reported 141,483 of those athletes participated in Division I nonrevenue sports, generating $3.6 billion in tuition and fees for their universities, an amount the coalition says is nearly equal to the total expense of providing playing opportunities for those students.
“Dropping these sports, you’re likely losing bodies, and that counts against your overall enrollment,” Ridpath said. “Enrollment is going down nationwide and (colleges cutting sports) are not really looking at the whole picture here.”
Real economic crisis
Athletics departments whose schools are members of Power 5 conferences appear, for the most part, better equipped than others to weather the economic fallout of the pandemic, as gate receipts and revenue sharing from football and men’s basketball have helped subsidize their non-revenue sports.
None of the Power 5 schools to date has eliminated a sports program.
The stability of those athletics departments, many of which rely on institutional support, will be challenged more than ever as higher education, which shifted from in-person instruction to online learning, faces an uncertain future regarding the return of students to school and the playing of games on campus.
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Of the more than two dozen four-year colleges and universities in New Jersey, Rutgers is the lone member of a Power 5 conference.
The school's New Brunswick campus rests in the heart of a state that ranks second nationally in COVID-19 positive cases and coronavirus-related deaths.
Epitomizing the very real economic crises colleges face, Rutgers anticipates a university shortfall of $200 million in its budgeted revenues over the remainder of the fiscal year, which concludes at the end of next month.
Rutgers president Robert Barchi said the school “will not close this gap on the backs of our students and their families,” calling on the Board of Governors to freeze undergraduate tuition and fees at current levels.
Barchi said the state university and all of higher education is confronting "perhaps the greatest academic and operational challenge in its history."
Rutgers has not trimmed its athletics programs since eliminating six sports – men’s heavyweight crew, men’s lightweight crew, men’s fencing, men’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and women’s fencing – 14 years ago.
Asked if the state university, which offers 22 programs, plans on cutting sports as a result of the pandemic’s economic impact, a spokesperson for Rutgers athletics declined comment.
“I am devastated when I see schools cut sports,” Marilyn McNeil, the athletics director at Monmouth University, which has 21 sports offerings, previously told USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey. “I really hope nobody uses this (health crisis) as a reason to do that.
“I understand sometimes you have to make hard decisions. But as I’ve always said, maybe you’ve got to divide the pie up a little differently. We’ll all have to look at what’s truly important.”
Other cost-cutting measures
A reduction in subsidies from student fees and institutional support due to declining enrollment, anticipated cuts in federal and state funding to public universities, a decrease in alumni giving amid record national unemployment rates, a reduction from $600 million to $225 million in NCAA revenue distribution following the cancellation of the 2020 men’s basketball tournament, and the potential loss of television and ticket revenue from the upcoming football season are adversely impacting the finances of college athletics programs.
Ridpath said athletics departments should immediately consider introducing cost-cutting measures including reductions in personnel, reductions in operating and travel costs, salary cuts and freezes, as well as a moratorium on building new athletics-only facilities and upgrades to existing facilities.
Rutgers, to that end, has been proactive. Barchi announced last month that football coach Greg Schiano, men’s basketball coach Steve Pikiell, women’s basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer and athletics director Pat Hobbs will take a 10 percent reduction in salary through August. The entire leadership team of the state university’s athletics department will endure a 5 percent pay cut over the same time period. In addition, Barchi announced all plans for new capital construction projects will be stopped and all active projects will be reviewed.
“I have to give them at least credit here, but I won’t give them credit with what they have done up to now,” said Ridpath, adding he believes the Rutgers athletics department has long engaged in profligate spending.
According to an NJ Advance Media report, the Rutgers athletics department shows a deficit of $445 million since 2003-04 and of $238 million since Barchi became the university’s president eight years ago.
Supporters of Rutgers athletics maintain the state university’s investment is the price of competing in the Big Ten, whose projected $65.2 million in revenue-sharing by the year 2027 will benefit the school in its quest to become financially self-sufficient.
“The Big Ten gave them a lifeline,” Ridpath said. “Because of that, I think they were fortunate. I think they can survive. I think without that, they would have been dead in the water with what they were doing financially. I’ve definitely been hard on Rutgers over the years, and certainly they put themselves in a pretty poor financial position.”
According to a USA TODAY analysis of college athletics spending, Rutgers spent $102.5 million on athletics during the 2017-18 academic year, ranking 36th nationally and 11th in the 14-team Big Ten Conference.
Comparatively, fellow league members Ohio State ($203.8 million) and Michigan ($183.4 million) ranked second and third, respectively, among colleges nationwide in 2017-18 athletic department spending.
'It was a crass thing'
Ridpath said he believes a recent maneuver from commissioners of five mid-major conferences, which failed, was an attempt to undermine nonrevenue sports.
The Division I Council of the NCAA last month rejected the commissioners' request for a years-long waiver to an NCAA bylaw that requires schools to sponsor a minimum of 16 sports programs to maintain their Division I status (colleges can still apply for independent waivers).
“I thought it was a crass thing for conferences to ask,” Ridpath said. “They were asking for temporary relief. Everyone knows once those sports are gone, they’re gone. They were looking for an easy way out instead of addressing the fat. The easy way out is let’s get rid of these sports and try to preserve the excess in football and men’s basketball. Thankfully, that (appeal) was turned down. It still doesn’t help if schools are above the minimum (with latitude to cut sports).”
Ron Mitchelson, the interim chancellor at East Carolina University, said his school's decision to eliminate four sports – men's and women's tennis and men's and women's swimming and diving – resulted from a deliberate review and in-depth analysis of the athletics department’s budgets and programs.
“The current athletics budget was not sustainable pre-COVID-19 and the university was working closely with athletics to decrease the annual deficit over the next year," he said in a statement. "With the pandemic, the deficit began to grow significantly where the impact was immediate and will affect future revenue and expenses for years to come. Ultimately, the reduction of sports aligns ECU with our American Athletic Conference peers and provides a roadmap to a more sustainable future for the University and athletics."
In addition to eliminating four sports – the most any college has cut thus far – East Carolina trimmed athletics operations. The school reduced its sports budget by regionalizing scheduling and travel for select sports, eliminating several positions that are currently vacant, limiting summer school for student-athletes and suspending all professional development conferences for a minimum of one year.
The moves are expected to save the school an estimated $4.9 million.
'Playing a game we can't win'
The Drake Group, whose mission is to defend academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports, encourages a “students-first” approach during the pandemic.
The organization urges schools to retain all sports, maintain scholarship commitments and maintain operating costs for direct student-athlete services such as athletic training, insurance, medical expenses and academic support.
Ridpath said he believes college athletics departments and the leagues with which they are affiliated must become creative in devising ways to keep alive sports programs.
Ridpath praised the Mid-American Conference, of which Ohio University, where he teaches, is a member, for issuing a league-wide mandate prohibiting the conference’s home football teams from staying in hotels on the eve of games. Ridpath said he believed the measure will save his college’s athletics department approximately $60,000.
“I don’t think a school would have done that unilaterally,” Ridpath said. “Those are easy cuts, but you still don’t see presidents and athletics directors making those easy cuts. We have a lot of unnecessary (spending) at the Mid-American Conference level. We are playing a game we can’t win. We are not Ohio State, and we shouldn’t be.”
Rob Wilson, associate athletics director at Florida State University, which spent almost $96,000 on home-game hotel rooms in 2018, according to USA TODAY, defended the practice. He said such overnight stays eliminate distractions in a college town for upperclassmen, who are spread out across the city in private housing, including large apartment complexes that often have loud, late-night parties.
The Mid-American Conference introduced other cost-cutting measures this month, announcing it has eliminated several postseason conference tournaments and overhauled the postseason for men's and women's basketball.
Such moves will save thousands of dollars per institution, but some conference member schools are facing multi-million dollar budget deficits.
Akron Athletics Director Larry Williams said the university's decision to cut three sports will save the school approximately $4.4 million, which accounts for 23 percent of the college's financial support of the athletics department.
Bowling Green State University said in a release eliminating its baseball program will save the athletics department approximately $500,000 annually, helping to offset a $2 million budget deficit.
The elimination of Central Michigan's men's indoor and outdoor track and field programs will help the school recoup a projected $628,000 per year.
According to the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Wisconsin-Green Bay is indefinitely suspending its men’s and women’s tennis programs, saving the school $230,000 annually in operating costs and scholarships.
“We’re not seeing real leadership," Ridpath said in reference to some of the schools that are eliminating sports. “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Those measures, he said, should not yet call for eliminating programs.
Follow the Bridgewater Courier News' Greg Tufaro on Twitter @GregTufaro.