With the specter of the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic looming over the collegiate landscape, tangible signs are beginning to appear of how the fiscal tightening will manifest itself.
The most stinging blow yet came Tuesday when the University of Cincinnati cut the men’s soccer program. It’s the second major college program to be cut since the start of the pandemic, as Old Dominion cut its wrestling program earlier this month.
The foreboding feeling around the college sports industry is that the cuts have just begun. One athletic director summed up the financial options for schools as ranging “from a haircut to decapitation” amid an environment where athletic department pay cuts and furloughs have become common.
“I think now that Cincinnati just did it, watch the next month,” said another athletic director from an FBS school. “They cleared the way for other people to do it. Cincinnati puts it on a different level. Unfortunately, you’re going to start to see it. When you have to right-size everything, that’s going to become a way out for a lot of these programs.”
Schools desperate for financial relief
A letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert from the Group of Five commissioners obtained by Yahoo Sports on Tuesday offers searing insight into the financial constraints felt at that level and the potential for a landscape that could look much different when sports return to campus. The fallout being discussed by those commissioners includes the potential elimination of postseason conference tournaments and shortened seasons in non-revenue sports.
The letter from the commissioners of the AAC, Mountain West, MAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA asked for alterations of NCAA bylaws in the wake of COVID-19 in order to save money. The letter asks for “temporary relief from several regulatory requirements for a period of up to four years” in order to provide “short-term relief.” The letter hopes that this relief will provide “opportunity for institutions to retrench and rebuild the financial structures of the institution.”
The requirements the conference commissioners asked for relief from hint at the fiscal peril of schools and leagues outside college athletics’ so-called Power Five. The most relevant among them is relief from the minimum number of “Sports Sponsorships,” as every FBS school is required to have a “minimum number of 16 varsity intercollegiate sports.”
Other requests range from waiving football attendance requirements, the minimum number of contests to be played in varying sports to both scheduling and financial aid requirements.
Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson, who signed the letter, told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday that the point was to come up with ways to make financial pinches in order to avoid sports being cut.
“We have to be creative in these times,” Thompson said in a phone interview. “I cannot emphasize enough that our intent is to maintain the same level of sports sponsorships. Is there a way to work on the edges or requirements, like the minimum number of contests? How can we reduce sports without eliminating sports?”
‘Athletic directors are using this as a reset’
But the Cincinnati move to cut soccer was viewed throughout the college sports industry as an unfortunate harbinger. Once Cincinnati honors remaining financial commitments to staff and player scholarships, it’ll save $800,000 per year. (The move had been discussed there internally prior, in part because the Big 12, where university officials have long targeted as a potential landing spot, doesn’t offer men’s soccer.)
One collegiate sports source noted that many schools that will end up cutting sports had long been thinking about it. COVID-19 becomes the cover to do so, as one official brought up the old Winston Churchill quote: “Never waste a good crisis.”
“Athletic directors are using this as a reset,” said an industry source. “Some athletic directors have been talking about cutting sports for three years and just looking for the right time.”
The financial crunch from COVID-19 could end up drastically altering the ways that Olympic sports are played in the Group of Five conferences. AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told Yahoo Sports that his league and many others are considering eliminating Olympic sports conference championships, essentially those outside of football and men’s and women’s basketball, for cost-saving reasons. Others suggested inviting fewer teams and individuals to save money. (The reality of this varies by sport, pending on how it attaches to the NCAA postseason piece.)
“It could save some money,” Aresco said. “It’s the kind of thing that everyone is discussing. We haven’t made any decisions yet.”
Thompson mentioned reducing the season in non-revenue sports to save money. The minimum number of volleyball games required by the NCAA is 19, for example, and most Mountain West schools played nearly 30 last year. Perhaps that number gets cut down to reduce costs? Same for baseball and softball, where the minimum number of games is 27 and many schools play nearly double that.
“Most conferences are looking at non-conference play,” Thompson said. “Less travel costs. Once you get to a place, maybe a double-header instead of a single game. We’re all addressing the same issues of cost reduction without elimination.”
Regional pragmatism vs. ego
One issue being heavily discussed, especially on the Eastern seaboard, is scheduling alliances to save travel costs for non-revenue sports. Using Old Dominion as an example, it makes little sense for its baseball team to travel in Conference USA league games to play at Rice (in Houston), FIU (in South Florida) and Louisiana Tech (in Ruston). Why not James Madison, Richmond and Georgetown? They are all in different leagues, but it would make much more sense.
The same could be said for schools in the Northeast, as it makes more sense for Boston College, Rhode Island, Holy Cross and UConn to play each other in non-revenue sports than many of their far-flung geographic league peers. “You would have to get to a place where people put a lot of ego aside,” said another AD in the Group of Five. “Sports is driven more by ego than common sense.”
One athletic director in a non-football league said of scheduling more geographically friendly games instead of league schedules: “We are having those discussions.” He said limiting costs on conference road trips in non-revenue sports would save his athletic department hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. In leagues outside the Power Five, that money matters.
“Can you imagine being Conference USA or the AAC and you’re sending your baseball team to UTEP or Tulsa,” the AD said, using hypothetical geographic outliers. “It doesn’t make any sense. Much like everything, we’ve done this to ourselves. For us to not think about regional scheduling alliances is complete lunacy.”
Athletic directors are doing everything possible to save sports, which means non-revenue sports could look much different whenever the sports calendar returns to normal.
Cincinnati’s decision on Thursday could end up being remembered as a tipping point. In a time of fiscal uncertainty on campuses, more cuts of sports from schools are expected to follow.
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