The real impact of Stanford cutting 11 sports will be felt far beyond Palo Alto

Stanford University, a school that long embraced having a full and robust athletic department, announced Wednesday it was cutting 11 of its current 36 varsity sports programs — men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling.

The reason? Money.

“The financial model supporting 36 varsity sports is not sustainable,” the school said in a statement. It was projecting a $12 million deficit for fiscal 2021.

With that announcement, you can see the collegiate sports model — and perhaps even the multi-billion dollar youth sports industry that feeds it — buckle. Schools across the country have now cut 56 teams this year, per Sports Illustrated, ranging from men’s soccer at Cincinnati to baseball at Boise State.

Stanford, though, is an entirely different beast. If a school with a $27 billion endowment is crying poor, then what hope is there for everyone else? This is especially true as the pandemic that has already leveled the profitable NCAA men’s basketball tournament is now threatening football revenue.

An ensuing rush of schools cutting teams, or at least reducing scholarships for programs that remain, is almost certain. Stanford isn’t going to be alone here. If anything, a university with Stanford’s reputation provides cover to other major schools that may want to drop just two or three programs. Either way, it adds up.

College sports will remain, of course. Stanford will still field an impressive 25 teams, more than the Division I average of 18 programs. Football and men’s basketball generally make money (sometimes tens of millions). Title IX requires an equal number of scholarships for women. Coaches salaries, facility construction and support staff continue to balloon for revenue sports.

What about everyone else? Or at least how many of the “everyone else”? Schools will still see value in having sports teams and count it as a reasonable loss (the theater department isn’t profitable, after all). It just may see less of the loss as “reasonable.”

And what about the machine of youth travel athletics where the possibility of a scholarship (even a partial one) or a chance to play in college is supposed to sit at the end of a rather expensive rainbow? With each lost roster spot, let alone team, there is one less goal capable of being achieved.

Despite having an endowment of some $27 billion, which ranks in the top five of universities across the country, Stanford has announced it will cut 11 sports because of budgetary concerns. (David Madison/Getty Images)
Despite having an endowment of some $27 billion, which ranks in the top five of universities across the country, Stanford has announced it will cut 11 sports because of budgetary concerns. (David Madison/Getty Images)

Of course, it’s not just scholarships, but staffing, gold-plated facilities, extensive travel, insurance and so much more. “We have calculated that the total incremental funding needed to permanently sustain these 11 sports at a nationally competitive level exceeds $200 million,” the school said.

Even with these cuts — due to the cost of the remaining programs — Stanford thinks it will still run an athletic deficit. Its football program has never drawn huge crowds (and thus revenue) in the manner of an Ohio State or a Texas. And the Pac-12 is lagging significantly in the money race to other major conferences, especially the SEC and Big Ten.

Still, this isn’t some small little operation. This is Stanford. The decision isn’t just financial. It’s philosophical. If it truly valued these teams, then a $12 million shortfall, or $200 million long-term commitment, would be covered in a flash.

“There are other significant fundraising priorities across the university and within athletics,” the school stated.

During a time when universities (among other businesses) are re-examining everything, it’s fair to wonder why it had a, say, squash team in the first place?

A whopping 12 percent of all Stanford undergraduates are varsity athletes. “A far higher percentage than exists at nearly all of our peer institutions,” the school stated. It will now be about 9 percent.

Some 240 of them will be affected here. Yet, will Stanford as a whole suffer? There is an inherent value in having all of these sports, but higher education is becoming a more bottomline industry.

Stanford’s acceptance rate is just 4.7 percent, meaning it could replace those 240 with extremely gifted students (some of the athletes would still crossover and qualify), many of whom are more than willing to pay the full $70,000 price tag. Or, scholarships could be given to exceptional students who might need the financial help.

While admissions at few, if any, schools are as competitive as Stanford, this can easily extend nationally.

College athletics has always bristled at the suggestion it's just football and men’s basketball — essentially professional operations tied to institutes of higher learning (and thus avoiding the payment of taxes or salaries for its athletes).

With each cut or scholarship-reduced non-revenue sport, though, that’s where it heads. Or is heading. Because if Stanford is cutting, then anyone and everyone could be cutting.

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