IPFW on Saturday announced it is cutting two of its most successful sports, raising questions about its continued commitment to Division I athletics.
The $1 million question – literally and figuratively – at IPFW is was the athletic departments’ decision to discontinue the men’s and women’s tennis programs financially motivated?
According to athletic director Kelley Hartley Hutton, that is the unfortunate situation the university encountered.
"We would have avoided this, absolutely we would have avoided this if we had the money," Hartley Hutton said. "There have been reductions on campus and this was something that was discussed at length. I was very hopeful we wouldn’t have to do this. But as the budget process played out, it became very clear this is what was going to be done."
IPFW’s men’s and women’s tennis programs are two of the university’s most successful sports. The men’s team won the 2013 Summit League championship, while the women’s team appeared in the 2010, 2011 and 2013 NCAA tournament and won five conference titles over a seven-year period.
Not that it matters.
When money is the bottom line and tennis programs don’t generate revenue, the ending writes itself. IPFW operates under one of the smallest budgets in Division I – $7.5 million, ranking 216 out of 230, according to a USA Today study. It receives $6.1 million in subsidies.
The University of Saint Francis, an NAIA member, spends $7.47 million annually on athletics.
NCAA rules allow 4.5 scholarships to be allocated to men’s tennis and eight for women’s programs. At IPFW, each team has nine members on its current roster – five seniors on the men’s team and two on the women’s team. There are also two full-time coaching positions that will be affected.
Eliminating the sports will save $450,000 in operating expenses. IPFW said it will honor the athletes’ scholarship for the remainder of their eligibility if they choose to stay at the university. NCAA rules allow immediate eligibility if an athlete transfers from a school that discontinued its program.
"Discontinuing an intercollegiate sport is disappointing," David Wesse, vice chancellor for financial and administrative affairs, said in a statement. "The most important step now is to assist these young men and women as they complete their education and finish their tennis careers."
The decision, according to IPFW, was based in part on recommendations made by a national collegiate sports consulting group during the fall semester as part of an internal review of all aspects of university operations. IPFW has already reallocated over $1 million within academic programs.
Both men’s and women’s tennis have roots to the 1970s. Men’s tennis began in 1973 and the women’s program was founded in 1976. They transitioned to Division I in 2001.
Fourteen years later, IPFW is teetering on the brink of losing its Division I status. The NCAA states all Division I schools must offer at least seven sports for men and seven for women or six for men and eight for women, with at least two team sports for each gender. IPFW is right at the 14-sport threshold.
"It’s been made very clear going through this process that going forward IPFW is committed to Division I athletics and also very committed to the 14 sports and student-athletes that remain at IPFW," Hartley Hutton said.
"It was a long process that involved consultants on our campus, a review of all our Title IX issues and a review of budgets impacting the university," added Hartley Hutton. "Really, we were looking at impacting the fewest students as possible."
But the Title IX excuse has been criticized roundly by college sports scholars. David Ridpath, associate professor of sport management at Ohio University and one of the leading voices in intercollegiate athletics, sees a similar story taking place in Fort Wayne.
"Title IX is a convenient distraction and not a reason to drop sports when adjusting spending priorities would solve problems and still make opportunities available," he said. "The statement where IPFW says that they are committed to Division I athletics gives me pause. Why is that? Is IPFW deeply affected and promoted by being DI in name only?
"I think having a broad-based athletic program at a level they can compete at would be better. I sincerely doubt this school, like others, is affected positively by DI status. In most every case, it is highly overvalued and not backed up by empirical research – even at big schools. It is just a smokescreen to maintain a status that a few think benefits the school.
"I feel for the athletes as these reasons are hollow, in my opinion, in IPFW trying to be something it is not."
In recent years, the number of athletic departments slashing sports has risen. And it isn’t limited to the IPFWs and Robert Morrises of the world. Maryland, Rutgers, Temple, and most notably, UAB have all cut programs.
The decision in Fort Wayne – and at other universities – not surprisingly was met with anger from coaches and players. The men’s team is currently 8-9 and the women’s team is 17-6, with a track record as one of IPFW’s most consistent sports.
As tennis flourished, men’s and women’s cross country, men’s golf, women’s soccer and softball floundered. Some are among the worst programs in all of Division I. Men’s golf is ranked 288 out of 302 and the softball team lost its first 24 games this season.
Just hours after the decision was made public, at 9 p.m. on Saturday, the women’s tennis team, filled with emotion, began a road trip to Denver, Omaha and South Dakota.
On April 24-26, IPFW will host the women’s tennis Summit League championships. That same weekend could mark the end of time for one of the conference’s top programs.
"We are extremely thankful for the many academic and athletic achievements of these student-athletes and coaches," Hartley Hutton said. "We will work to ensure a successful transition for them into the next phase of their lives here or at another institution."