Has the Time Come to Consider Real Budget Cuts for College Athletics?

The Athens NEWS | March 25, 2010
Running Title: Dispatches from the Ivory Trailer

Has the time come to consider real budget cuts for college athletics?

By Matt Zuefle

As hoop fans from across the nation continue to revel in March Madness, behind the scenes university budgets continue to be whittled away. Lately, some administrators are beginning to address a set of questions that many observers doubted they ever would. Among those questions are: “Where do the cuts in college athletics need to start?” and “How deep might they need to go?”

Despite all of the hype about college sports generating revenue, in fact many athletic programs lose money and require subsidies from the general budgets of universities to survive. According to the NCAA’s own reports only 25 of the 119 schools active in the Football Bowl Subdivision (the old Division I-A) during the 2007-2008 fiscal year were profitable. Not surprisingly, the emerging reality collegiate athletics face is one that clearly includes the possibility of major budget cuts and the total elimination of some sports.

Hofstra University decided to drop its football program entirely last fall, and their decision is not as unusual as it might appear to be. Western Washington University has also eliminated its football program, and both Northern Iowa and Vermont have dropped baseball. Within the past few weeks Cal State-Bakersfield’s president has proposed cutting men’s and women’s golf, wrestling, and tennis—and it’s a good bet that other California public universities may find themselves in similar circumstances soon. Be sure, this is a trend that is likely to continue—and to spread.

Along with these extreme measures, many college athletics programs are trying to find more creative ways to cut expenses, including attempts to reduce spending on things such as new uniforms, printed media guides, and travel costs. Some major universities have started taking the bus to nearby football games again, rather than chartering jets everywhere like they did back in better times.

So, are there still middle-ground solutions available that can help to preserve the quality and diversity of college sports? Yes there are, but not all of them are simple fixes. In fact many of them would probably prove to be both difficult and unpopular.

To start, further streamlining of coaching and support staffs must be considered if austerity budgets continue to prevail. It is common for public universities with even a modest menu of sport teams to have 100-150 dedicated positions in athletics. Reducing numbers of full-time athletics staff and relying more on graduate student assistants, interns, and volunteers may become a necessity if programs are to be preserved.

Another change that may go against the “old normal” is the possibility of starting to scale down the salaries of expensive head coaches, who in some states are among the highest paid public officials. Indeed, many of these coaches derive a generous amount of their salary packages through foundation monies, endorsements, and other enhancements, but their base salaries are still surprisingly high. Watch for more well-known schools to start negotiating these contracts more carefully and for others to try to develop more loyal younger coaches in-house as alternatives to buying big-name talent through bidding wars with rival institutions.

For years there has been a scramble to realign athletic conferences into bigger organizations with more top schools. This too may be a trend that is near to running its course. A good example of a conference that has grown and morphed is Conference USA. Appropriately named, it currently has twelve member schools scattered across the country from swampy eastern North Carolina to the desert Southwest. Is it a practical arrangement?

Consider the case of erstwhile Mid-American Conference member Marshall University. The Herd has to go 1650 miles one-way from Huntington, West Virginia to play its new Conference USA rival UT-El Paso, just across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. As the recession grinds on, reorganizing athletic conferences with more attention to practical economic and geographic considerations may become more important to keeping budgets balanced than the lure of potential television contracts and other pecuniary temptations.

Finally, there is an option that was hard to imagine just a few years ago. After decades of growth and increasing autonomy, and even the opportunity to set up their own separate fundraising foundations, it may be time for some athletic departments to be dismantled and then re-absorbed back into appropriate academic units or other administrative divisions (such as student affairs). The drawbacks for doing this are exaggerated, while the potential benefits are many. Vanderbilt led the way on this one, and it since has proved that you can have great competitive intercollegiate athletics without an athletic director or department.

Tough times call for tough decisions. College sports are an important part of university life and not many people would like to see them eliminated because of budgetary concerns. Saving them and ensuring their future may require more personal sacrifices from the people who love them the most—the people who work with them.

Editor's note: Dispatches from the Ivory Trailer is a regular column addressing issues in higher education and college town life. The original version of this column appeared in the Athens NEWS (Athens, Ohio) on March 18, 2010. Matt Zuefle can be contacted at dmz@ivorytrailer.com.

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