Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
As universities scramble to survive the financial fallout of the coronavirus, sports teams are being cut, abruptly ending thousands of student-athletes' careers and exposing a collegiate sports model that many believe is broken.
Why it matters: With concern about the fall football season growing by the day, the fear is that the cuts have only just begun.
- Football is the only sport that generates a profit at most schools. If the season is cut short or canceled, every sport will feel it.
By the numbers: 43 Division I teams have been eliminated in the last 12 weeks, and more than 130 programs have been cut across all NCAA levels. By comparison, just 57 programs were cut in the previous three years, combined.
- Men's and women's tennis have been hit the hardest, as have Olympic sports like volleyball. That could affect future podiums: 88% of American athletes in the Rio Games had played their sport in college.
The big picture: While schools claim these are money-saving decisions, many point to the reluctance to touch where the real fat sits — in the football budget — as proof that the NCAA model has been corrupted and lost its original purpose of providing broad-based opportunities.
- Exhibit A: Cincinnati cut men's soccer in March, which will save the school roughly $725,000. That's less than it paid its football support staff (i.e. non-coaches) last year, and head football coach Luke Fickell earned $2.3 million.
The state of play: No Power 5 schools (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Notre Dame) have eliminated a sports team yet. But that will change if the football season is affected and they lose out on lucrative TV deals, which comprise roughly a third of their revenue.
- At the Group of 5 level (AAC, C-USA, MAC, MWC, Sun Belt, independents) where TV deals are smaller and even football programs often lose money, some schools (like UConn) have already cut multiple sports.
- As you move down the divisions, the reliance on government and institutional funding only increases, so the situation is bound to get worse as the economy suffers, campuses remain closed and enrollment plummets.
Between the lines: A fact rarely acknowledged by athletic departments looking to make cuts is that when you factor in tuition payments, many "non-revenue" sports actually generate millions for universities.
- While sports like football and basketball guarantee every athlete a full scholarship, the vast majority of sports limit them, meaning many athletes are paying full tuition.
- So a swimming team, for example, could be generating over $1 million to the school, "but the accounting system in athletics doesn't include that $1 million," economist Andy Schwarz told SI. "That's on somebody else's books."
The last word:
"Broad-based programming is easy to talk about and expensive to do. But all of our programs will be poorer for not having those student-athletes around."— Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, per AP