We keep seeing touching stories about college athletes in minor sports losing their scholarships and their dreams. Their teams have been cut. University officials cite the pandemic as the reason.
I’m calling BS on schools that keep dropping non-revenue sports, saying it was an economic necessity.
This doesn’t add up. Major college athletic departments have been splitting billions of TV dollars from the College Football Playoff and the NCAA Tournament. Billions! And now, six months into the pandemic, they’re falling to pieces?
Universities have massive athletic debt. Iowa is more than $200 million in the hole. The Pac-12 has secured a $1 billion loan as a relief fund for its schools. And the solution is always the same: Coaches take a temporary pay cut while the men’s gymnastics team is permanently eliminated. Or tennis. Or swimming. They are dropping as many non-revenue sports as possible. Stanford, Iowa. It’s happening everywhere. William & Mary cut seven sports last week.
Something is wrong with the scale here. Non-revenue teams don’t cost much. Cutting them barely helps the debt problem.
“I think they are camouflaging,’’ said Andy Schwarz, an antitrust economist and co-founder of the Professional Collegiate League, a basketball league that challenges the NCAA’s amateurism model by offering pay and education to athletes. “Never let a good crisis go to waste.’’
What that means: Major athletic departments were looking for a way to drop many non-revenue sports anyway. They are using Covid-19 as an excuse to do it. The pandemic isn’t creating the problem so much as revealing it. Or as Schwarz puts it: There’s a false connection between football profits and field hockey expenses.
Of course losing a year of football revenue would hurt a major athletic department. But what’s revealed now is the bloated business aspect of college sports, a model of college athletics that already wasn’t working.
Major athletic departments had massive revenues and already had massive debt anyway. And it wasn’t because of the golf team.
College sports is a bursting bubble. A new model needs to be re-imagined fast, before non-revenue sports are all gone. There are now just 13 college men’s gymnastics programs left.
Here is my suggestion for the power five conferences. Schwarz helped to shape it: Take football and men’s and women’s basketball out of the athletic departments and make them their own pro sports department; call it College Sports, Inc. And let them live within their means, pay for their own stadiums out of their revenues. Pay the players, who then must pay income tax. Don’t charge students an athletics fee.
Meanwhile, let the non-revenue sports have their own model, not one where they are surviving on scraps of the football and basketball teams. They can have their own department with small scholarships, where athletes pay most of their own way. Much like at smaller colleges, their tuition dollars will pay for the programs.
Non-revenue, or Olympic, sports are dying in the current model. They can’t survive in the increasingly for-profit, professional model that football and basketball have turned athletic departments into now; they can’t live under the same roof with football. At this point, football isn’t keeping rowing and swimming afloat, but rather sinking them. (Under my model, football profits would pay for the scholarships needed for women athletes under Title IX).
Schwarz believes this idea for a new model can work. He says that as it stands, power five schools are using accounting tricks to hide just how big football profits truly are. For example, let’s say the sticker price for a college for tuition, room, board and fees is $50,000 a year. Schwarz says that universities will give football players a full-ride scholarship and count that as a $50,000 expense.
In reality, schools rarely get the sticker price from any student. Let’s say the average student after academic and other scholarships might pay $15,000. So if the school doesn’t give a full-ride scholarship to a tight end, it is likely to get $15,000 from a different student. That means a football player’s scholarship isn’t really worth $50,000, and 85 full-ride football scholarships would be counted as roughly $3 million more in cost than the school is really incurring.
Why would a school want to make it look like its football profits are smaller than they really are? Schwarz says it’s so they can cry poor and claim that they can’t afford to pay football players.
Stanford dropped 11 Olympic sports in July, citing lost revenues because of Covid-19. 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.
But Schwarz said that Stanford didn’t need to make those cuts.
“I don’t think Stanford was losing money (on those Olympic sports),’’ he said. “Most of the scholarships in those sports there are endowed.’’
He said that to Stanford, sports is just a “long-term branding strategy’’ and that the university simply decided it wanted to have fewer athletes. He did say that Stanford would have no difficulty replacing athletes on scholarship with non-athletes paying more of their own way, so there was some financial gain in the cuts.
“But do people really think football revenues won’t come back to where they were?’’ he said.
Of course they will. So why solve a short-term problem with permanent cuts? It just doesn’t add up.