The Virus Could Be the Cure for College Sports

Joe Nocera
·7 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Bloomberg Opinion will be running a series of features by our columnists that consider the long-term consequences of the crisis. This column is part of a package on transformations in the way in which education is structured and delivered. For more, see Tyler Cowen on the business of higher education, Clara Ferreira Marques on the promise of online learning and Michael Petrilli on how high schoolers can benefit from reduced schedules.

This is not going to be the most politic sentence I’ve written, but here goes: The coronavirus pandemic could be the best thing that’s ever happened to college athletics.

Yes, things look pretty grim right now. The NCAA’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were canceled, as were all the spring sports like baseball, tennis and lacrosse. Without the $1.1 billion March Madness generates, the NCAA was only able to distribute $225 million to its university members, rather than the $600 million schools were expecting. If the biggest moneymaker of all, college football, is canceled for the 2020 season — well, the athletic directors I talked to can barely bring themselves to contemplate the possibility.

But as the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” In the case of college sports, the lack of funds could force the college athletic establishment to take measures it should have taken at least two decades ago. The scenario I outline below may not necessarily happen. In a sane world, it should.

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In mid-April, about a month after the lockdown occurred in much of the U.S., the commissioners of the so-called Group of Five conferences — a tier below the powerhouse conferences such as the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference — sent a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert, asking for temporary relief from the Division I requirement that they field a minimum of 16 sports.

Many of the bigger schools have two dozen teams or more, but there are far more universities that struggle to maintain a decent-sized roster of teams. Most schools resort to tapping student fees and university funds to subsidize their athletic programs. Easing the 16-sport requirement, the Group of Five letter said, “will facilitate the opportunity for institutions to retrench and rebuild the financial structures of the institution.”

Nine days later, the commissioners got their answer: No. The NCAA would not grant a blanket waiver; instead, it would consider granting waivers on an individual basis.

Athletic directors will tell you that the last thing they want to do is cut teams, but the pandemic is going to give them no choice, no matter what the NCAA says. Take the University of Akron. It currently fields 19 teams, but in a recent video, university president Gary Miller announced that the school had a $65 million budget gap that he hoped to close by eliminating six of its 11 colleges and making deep, as yet unannounced, cuts in athletics. The chance that Miller can preserve 16 of its 19 teams while eliminating more than half the academic colleges is zero.

Akron is hardly alone. As schools make the inevitable deep cuts in vital academic programs, they will also have to make similar cuts in its — let’s face it — less vital athletic programs; otherwise, students and professors alike will revolt. And the idea that the NCAA is going to be the arbiter of which schools can drop below 16 teams and which can’t is ludicrous.

So in the first part of my scenario, the universities (that is, the 347 Division I members of the NCAA), having no choice, will decide to collectively ignore the NCAA and take control of their own destiny. The NCAA will still do what it is actually good at: running championship tournaments and establishing the rules for various sports. But it will lose its dictatorial control over college athletes and university athletic programs. Conferences will set their own rules about everything from eligibility to transfers to scholarships and, yes, even compensation for college athletes. Amateurism may not completely die out, but at a minimum, players will get the rights to their name, image and likeness without pushback from a neutered NCAA.

The financial squeeze created by the coronavirus crisis is also likely to widen the gap between the big-time sports schools and everybody else. This sounds worrisome; in fact, it will be an unambiguously good thing. According to figures compiled by USA Today, 38 athletic departments generate $100 million or more in revenue. (The University of Texas tops the list with revenue of $219 million.) At the bottom are 88 schools that make do with less than $20 million.

It makes no sense that both the top 38 and the bottom 88 all compete in the same division. For that matter, it doesn’t make much sense that a university with a strong basketball program also has to have a Division I tennis team, or soccer team, or even football team. Football is extremely profitable for schools like Ohio State, which has averaged $75 million in football profits the last three years. It’s a disaster for a school like the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, whose $48 million in athletic revenue includes a staggering $37.5 million subsidy from student fees and university funds.

The “revenue sports”— football and men’s basketball — at the powerhouse schools like Notre Dame and the University of Michigan will eventually return to being cash cows. Even if football does wind up being canceled this coming season, these schools will find themselves in the same position as any company that has had to shut down a profitable division because of the pandemic. The short-term gap will be serious but temporary; once they can start playing basketball and football again and their lucrative TV contracts kick in, the money will start rolling again.

But for all the other sports — and for all the schools that are not major football powers — it’s going to be a different world. It is likely that in order to preserve certain sports, scholarships will have to be eliminated. Olympic sports like wrestling, fencing and, er, beach volleyball will have a hard time surviving. Because of decades of conference realignments, many teams in the non-revenue sports now fly, often on private jets, for away games. Athletic directors will start agitating for less expensive travel, which means playing teams closer to home. Aside from football and men’s basketball, conferences will splinter as the nonrevenue sports realign geographically. This will also rekindle once-great rivalries that have been lost.

Here is the most important potential change: The little guys will stop chasing the big guys, a hopeless race in any case. Schools like Eastern Michigan and Arkansas State and Old Dominion (which recently cut its wrestling team) will rethink the place of athletics on their campuses. A school might have a Division I basketball team, but everything else would be in a lower division, where they can better compete. They might decide they no longer need to bend admissions standards and have special facilities for athletes, or a big budget dedicated to recruiting. They might conclude they can no longer afford to pay their coaches millions of dollars.

“I hope this pandemic causes the entire college sports industry to reset,” said David Ridpath, an associate professor at Ohio University and one of the leaders of the Drake Group, which seeks to reform college sports. As regular readers know, I’ve been calling for reform of college sports for a decade, and I have glumly watched as one effort after another fell short. I never thought in a million years that a pandemic might be thing that does the trick. But it just might.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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