As the novel coronavirus pandemic upended sports across the United States, the governing bodies charged with making sweeping and drastic decisions often followed the lead of one another. Once a league or event opted for a major adjustment – progressing from limiting fans to outright cancellation – others quickly followed suit, with their decisions now seeming simpler and expected.
So in recent weeks, when Old Dominion canceled its wrestling program and Cincinnati cut men’s soccer, fear of similar decisions reverberated among Division I coaches of non-revenue sport programs.
“It’s one of those things, where you’re like, ‘Man, is that a harbinger of the next six months, of what’s going on here?'” said Brian Wiese, the men’s soccer coach at Georgetown. “To some extent, it might be. I’m hoping it’s not.”
In the wake of the pandemic, athletic directors and universities face significant financial uncertainty because of cancellations and the economic downturn. They worry about losing donations and declining enrollment. Athletic departments received a much smaller distribution from the NCAA after the cancellation of the men’s basketball tournament, a primary revenue-generator. Questions about how and when the college football season can safely be played exacerbate that concern.
Without football, athletic departments at major programs would lose millions in television and attendance revenue. Smaller programs would miss out on payouts from guarantee games. Departments that rely on student fees might not have that influx of funding if students can’t be on campus in the fall. Some athletic departments have already implemented pay cuts and furloughs to alleviate financial strain, but sport offerings could also be in jeopardy.
The Group of Five conferences recently submitted a request asking NCAA President Mark Emmert to temporarily relax some regulatory requirements, including the minimum of 16 sport programs for Division I status. Twenty-two other conferences – all outside the Power Five – asked the NCAA for similar relief, according to Rob Kehoe, the college programs director at United Soccer Coaches. In opposition, leaders from numerous coaches’ associations co-signed a letter to conference commissioners. Implementing a waiver to ease this regulation would have opened the door for program cancellations across the country.
The NCAA Division I Council met Friday and said it would consider some legislative changes, but the request to adjust sport sponsorship minimums should be removed from that list. Schools can ask for waivers related to sport sponsorship minimums on an individual basis.
“We will prioritize student-athlete well-being and opportunities balanced with reducing costs associated with administering college sports,” M. Grace Calhoun, the Division I Council chair and the athletic director at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement, “but a blanket waiver of sport sponsorship requirements is not in keeping with our values and will not be considered.”
Football and men’s basketball are typically the only programs that generate profit, and football can often single-handedly offset the expense of all the nonrevenue sports at a university. According to the Department of Education’s most recent data, football at Auburn University profits about $47 million. All programs outside football and men’s basketball cost the department a combined $25 million.
“College football, I think we all know, is significant to the overall health and financial viability of an athletics department,” Maryland Athletic Director Damon Evans said.
After Old Dominion cut wrestling, Athletic Director Camden Wood Selig said in a statement that the “decision became even more clear during this coronavirus crisis, which we know will have significant impact on future athletics budgets,” while also citing a six-month study of the program by an outside consultant. The statement from Cincinnati Athletic Director John Cunningham about cutting men’s soccer referenced “this time of profound challenges and widespread uncertainty” without explicitly mentioning the coronavirus.
Cancellations such as these have prompted questions about the lavish spending within football and men’s basketball programs. For major athletic departments, eliminating an entire non-revenue program might cost the same as shaving off a fraction of the budget devoted to football. Where a department chooses to make this cut can indicate what its leaders value, and the perceived success of an athletic director is generally based on the school’s performance in football and men’s basketball.
“If the program was viable before this took place, then it will be viable after this takes place,” said David Berri, a sports economist and professor at Southern Utah. “So that suggests to me is what’s going on here is athletic directors are using this as an excuse.
“I just don’t buy the argument that in response to a temporary crisis you need to cut an entire program. If you were interested in cutting things, there are things in football and men’s basketball that you could cut.”
With much of the decision-making outside their control, coaches of non-revenue teams plan to minimize their own program’s expenses proactively to protect their sports’ futures.
“What I saw in the dot-com bubble burst, there were issues with revenue,” said Thom Glielmi, the longtime Stanford men’s gymnastics coach. “A lot of programs were in jeopardy and budgets were being cut. They had to really buckle down and figure out a way to be less of a burden, so I think that’s what’s coming.”
Down from 59 programs in 1982, just 15 men’s gymnastics team remain in Division I. Those schools produce a majority of the athletes on the U.S. national team. Some stay in their college towns to train as postgraduates, so any reduction of programs could hurt not only the sport at the college level but at the elite level, too.
In 2016, the NCAA reported that more than 400 members of the U.S. Olympic team were future, current or former college athletes.
“The funding model, generated largely through football, supports a pretty important mission to our society,” Central Florida Athletic Director Danny White said, referencing that Olympic pipeline. “I hope we can find ways to protect it, as we hope to protect all sorts of things that are important our society, as we go through these challenging months ahead.”
Some sports have begun discussing creative, cost-saving measures. Men’s gymnastics has considered hosting one or two virtual competitions, where athletes would compete from their own gyms with judges working remotely. Women’s gymnastics has discussed slightly shortening the season.
The cost of travel is also a concern in men’s soccer, which could see schedules skew toward more regional matchups. Furman, a small private school in South Carolina that has produced multiple U.S. national team players, has games scheduled at George Mason and American University this fall. While those games are still planned, Coach Doug Allison said, “that kind of trip might be in danger.”
With many programs facing similar constraints, Wiese said men’s soccer coaches have considered creating “a national database, almost like a transfer portal for games,” because so many schools might need to restructure their schedules with games that don’t require flights or hotels.
“There are no bad ideas at this point,” said Kerrie Turner, the Bowling Green women’s gymnastics coach and president of the sport’s coaches’ association. “Everything is on the table. One thing [coaches’ associations] felt strongly about was really pushing to get the NCAA, the conference commissioners, the ADs, to really try to make a commitment to not cut sports. Because there are ways to weather this storm.”
But with athletic departments scrambling for funds, sweeping cuts could be perceived as a quick solution. Proposals such as the one the Group of Five suggested are “very, very concerning,” Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, said before the NCAA released a statement on the issue.
A program’s success isn’t going to “make anyone bulletproof,” Wiese said, referencing the New Mexico men’s soccer team that was cut in 2018, despite 12 NCAA tournament appearances since 2000. But coaches hope their efforts to reduce the burden, helping their own programs and the future of their sports.
“You always want to be mindful of what’s best for the sport, how can you insulate your program and help other programs succeed,” Maryland wrestling coach Alex Clemsen said. “So anytime you see strong negative potential financial impact, if your Spidey sense doesn’t kick up, I think you are probably a little out of touch with reality.”