With its multimillion-dollar deficit mounting and no deep-pocketed donor to cover the shortfall, Marylands athletic department proceeded with plans to cut at least seven of its 27 varsity teams this weekend. The downsizing is an attempt to correct an unsustainable pattern many households know well: spending more than you earn.
But the forces behind the bleak reality in College Park arent unique to Maryland. Athletic departments at nine out of 10 public universities that compete in big-time sports spent more money than they generated last year – and many are grappling with the question of whether dropping some sports is the solution.
Unless runaway spending is brought under control, according to financial data and those who study them, its only a matter of time before other schools are forced to follow Marylands lead.
Over the last five years, 205 varsity teams have been dropped in NCAA Division I, the top ranks of college sports – 133 for men, 72 for women. Mens tennis, gymnastics and wrestling have been hit particularly hard. Rutgers cut six sports in 2007 to address a multimillion-dollar deficit. Brigham Young, Clemson, Washington and UCLA have also pared offerings. And cash-strapped California Berkeley announced in 2010 it was cutting five sports because of budget problems, before an aggressive fundraising blitz spared the teams.
No major university has cut as deeply as Maryland, however, and some point to its budget woes as a warning that the current model of college sports, marked by overzealous spending in pursuit of success in football and mens basketball, is broken.
Quite frankly, I think weve gotten ourselves in a terrible situation with intercollegiate athletics, with the cost of running a program really out of proportion to the basic purpose of our universities, said William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and a co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
Added John Nichols, co-chairman of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, the leading faculty voice on the issue: What seems to be happening all too often nationwide is that the breadth and depth of athletic departments are being cut. Its becoming the victim of a financial need to feed this commercial beast.
According to USA Todays most recent annual survey of sports spending, culled from data supplied to the NCAA, just 22 of 227 public universities in NCAA Division I turned a profit in 2011. The rest lost money.
There are several factors behind the escalating financial pressures. Spending on sports is rising at nearly twice the rate of spending on academics, according to the Knight Commission. Coaching salaries and construction costs are up dramatically, as football-playing schools, chasing a major bowl appearance, expand stadiums and lure big-name coaches capable of filling them.
Meanwhile, state appropriations for higher education are declining, which heightens pressure on athletic departments to sell out venues and boost fundraising.
In this environment, a downturn in ticket sales, coupled with a heavy debt burden, can be catastrophic.
Out of control
The reality is that in the hyper-competitive environment of college sports, in which athletic departments must spend money to make money, Marylands budget priorities are more the norm than the exception.
No one needs to explain that to NCAA president Mark Emmert. He was president of the University of Washington in 2009 when the athletic department dropped its nationally ranked mens and womens swim teams to address a $3 million deficit. The same year, Washington hired a head football coach whose annual salary was more than the budget of both teams combined.
According to R. Scott Kretchmar, a Penn State professor of exercise and sport sciences, its all but impossible for university presidents to ramp down spending on the revenue sports of football and mens basketball, even as they confront deficits.
Presidents are obligated to raise money, and its the football and basketball events that bring the big donors and trustees in, said Kretchmar, who was Penn States faculty athletic representative to the NCAA for 10 years. Theres virtually nothing else at the university that has the cachet and excitement that big-time sports does. Presidents are saying, I cant go down that road of scaling back big-time sports. Unilateral disarmament is nothing that will fly.
Some hope that the four-team college football playoff that was approved last week will bail out athletic departments in distress. A playoff could generate as much as $500 million in new revenue, according to industry insiders. That could mean an additional $2 million to $3 million apiece for the 120 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
But if past is prelude, the newfound playoff money will only increase the cost of competing and widen the gulf between college sports haves and have-nots, Kretchmar predicted.
The Knight Commission, a group of university presidents, trustees and former athletes who advocate for reform in college sports, offered a road map in a 2010 report, Restoring the Balance: Dollars, Values and the Future of College Sports. In it, the panel recommended the NCAA require colleges to publish the true cost of their athletic programs in comparable, complete terms, reflecting not only revenue and expenses but also the often-hidden debt service on facilities and subsidies from their universities general funds.
It also proposed that the NCAA cap the number of non-coaching jobs on certain teams. And it recommended the NCAA reduce the number of football scholarships allowed by at least 10 from the current 85.
To date, none of those recommendations has gained traction.
That leaves two options for substantive change:
Persuade Congress to grant an antitrust exemption that would permit the NCAA to cap spending – whether on coaches salaries, scholarship costs or recruiting.
Wait until the headlong rush for more money becomes so nakedly transparent that the Internal Revenue Service declares college sports a for-profit enterprise and revokes its tax-exempt status.
Thats a doomsday scenario but one Kirwan believes is plausible.
Absolutely, he said. Were moving further and further from the stated purpose of intercollegiate athletics. It has just become a big business.
Maybe it sounds like were crying wolf. But sometimes the wolf is really at the door. And it will be if we continue with this madness.