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NCAA Schools Cry Poverty, Use Pandemic To Cut Sports They Didn’t Want Anyway

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.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

9 Comments

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  1. This is clearly whats happening, been saying it for a while now. Schools drop non-revenue, big cuts to athletic departments, they keep the football money for themselves, academics take back some control, and they have money to pay players which is inevitable.

    I don’t see a path where schools keep non-revenue in separate model. Too much liability, equity demands, and costs. Yes, non-revenue is expensive. They get all the special dining, rehab services, and tutors….just like football.

    I do see a model where non-revenue become club teams which are not linked to the schools from a liability standpoint but maybe they can help in certain ways. They play a more regional, local conference and buildup a local fan base (as all sports did in their inception). May actually help them, building up more heated local rivalries.

  2. If we don’t get rid of Title IX as it applies to college athletics and such, major college sports will die over time.

    Most college professors and administrators are liberals and believe sports are Patriarchal in nature and must be broken.

    Most women that compete in sports have no idea that Men’s sports across All Sports, Are driven by Men’s participation in sports.

    It doesn’t mean women should not participate, but men’s athletics drives all sports. And as that is undermined, all sports are undermined. Eventually collapse comes.

    Sports and Athletic endeavors find their roots in Masculine Achievements save for Warfare. Warfare and Sports are connected.

    And Warfare is a masculine endeavor.

  3. The universities and athletic departments have been living so high on the hog for so long, they don’t know how to manage their money anymore. Their solution was to keep pumping up football and basketball TV deals and spread it around, but now that is gone- temporarily. They have also lost sight of the fact that a university is a culture with traditions that are worth keeping. Even if rowing is not a profit center, it is worth keeping. Female sports is worth keeping. So what if it is not profitable. Most universities are non-profit organizations- not publicly traded corporations. They should figure out how to keep their traditions going and not turn their campuses into a place where no fun is allowed unless you are explicitly profitable.

  4. Some of these minor sports should be transitioned to a club model if they’re not self sustaining or don’t have financial support from boosters. University budgets are inflated as-is. I don’t think the rest of the student body should pay more to offset the cost of minor sport athlete’s scholarship.

  5. Here’s the other dirty secret about a lot of these non-revenue sports: they ultimately make money for schools. Most D1 sports and programs, especially the ones getting cut now, are not full scholarship sports.

    Take a sport like lacrosse. 40-50 kids and money is spread out amongst the roster. If a kid gets as little as $1000 he can sit at the table in his HS wearing the school’s hat and sign a letter of intent, as a ‘scholarship’ athlete.

    When I was involved D1 fully funded program needed approximately $300k. Spread that out and it’s around $6500 per kid. The most I saw a kid get was $35k of a $55k tuition.

    The $55k is an inflated price, so the $6500 the school is ‘giving’ to each kid – on average – brings tuition down to what it’s real price should be. It’s like see a $2400 TV selling for $1600, when it’s sticker price is over-inflated.

    At the school I was involved with, there were 55 kids on the roster. 12-15 were dogshit and didn’t belong on the team, and we wanted to cut them.

    The administration told us that those kids were basically paying full tuition and 15 x $55k for $825k MORE than covered the expenses to run a shitty D1 sports program.

    Same exact thing with the swimming team, which didn’t even have as much scholarship money.

    This cutting sports situation is even a bigger scam than it seems.

  6. Another likely reason these small sports are singled out, is that colleges expect that alumni and other supporters can step up to raise sufficient funds to run these programs. Most expenses are sunk costs (gyms, other facilities, dorms). All that needs to be raised is gear, coaches salaries, travel.

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