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I know you probably don’t want to read just Covid-19 newsletters over the next four months and I know I probably don’t want to only write newsletters about Covd-19 for the next four months, but the news keeps happening, and it turns out reading enough neato college football history stuff to write an entertaining and informative newsletter takes a minute. If you don’t want to read another Covid-19 newsletter, thank you very much for opening this email and boosting my readership stats. I won’t be offended if you decline to scroll all the way down to the bottom.

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The economic crisis has claimed the first D1 victim

The economic crisis has already hit the smaller college ranks. Tiny MacMurray College, right here in Illinois, is straight-up closing, which means all of their DIII athletic programs will be ending as well. Notre Dame de Namur University in California has also shut down athletic programs, and the school appears likely to close. There will probably be others at the DII, DIII and NAIA level that will drop teams, close athletic departments, or potentially close completely, over the coming months.

But now we have the first D1 program, to my knowledge, to get shut down. Old Dominion announced late on Thursday that they will be ending their wrestling program, effective immediately.

Via ODU’s official release:

"We are saddened to have to make this decision, but it's one that was made with the long-term best interest of the athletics program in mind," said director of athletics Dr. Camden Wood Selig. "No one wants to reduce opportunities for young men to compete and represent Old Dominion, but we are required to be responsible with departmental resources. Our decision became even more clear during this coronavirus crisis, which we know will have significant impact on future athletics budgets. This decision will better allow the remaining sports to compete at a national level."

The decision in part developed from the findings of a six-month study of the athletics program by an outside consultant. The comprehensive report reviewed the national college sports landscape, identified current and future financial challenges and evaluated Title IX compliance, which led to the recommendation to discontinue a varsity sport. Once completely implemented, it is estimated that athletics will have an expense savings of approximately $1 million.

It doesn’t look like it is accurate to blame this decision completely on coronavirus, seeing as the school had been evaluating the program for months, but the coming financial difficulties appear to be the 2x4 that broke the camel’s back.

It doesn’t look like ODU wrestling was bad or anything. Conference USA doesn’t sponsor the sport, so ODU competed in the MAC, with a slew of other affiliate members, like Rider, Cleveland State, and perhaps most bizarre, Missouri. The Monarchs were 6-2 in conference play.

So maybe travel was a little tougher, and the school thinks it can save some money. The consultants say the school expects to save about a million.

I’m sure the athletic budget balance sheet will look a little better, but I’m not entirely sure this will save ODU a ton of money. Wrestling, like just about all Olympic sports, includes many students who are not on full scholarship. If I’m not mistaken, a D1 team gets about 10 scholarships for wrestling, and ODU had 32 students participating on the team.

If you drop the program, and you don’t replace a wrestler that was on partial scholarship with a regular student, the athletic department might have saved money, but Old Dominion University is out some revenue. I can’t speak for ODU’s institutional goals or outlook, but a whole lot of schools are operating on the assumption that enrollment is going to be down when things go back to “normal”.

I don’t doubt that Olympic sports cuts are coming. This survey of D1 ADs shows that some ADs are wondering if the NCAA should change their requirement that D1 teams need to sponsor 16 sports, which would presumably give them more flexibility to drop teams. And if a school decides that it just isn’t in their institutional best interest to field a particular Olympic sport, that may be a perfectly justifiable decision.

But I hope that schools reach that conclusion as an absolute last resort. Not only because it takes away educational and athletic opportunities from students, which should be the most important part of an athletic department mission, but also because it might not always even save the school that much money, once you consider the impact beyond just the athletic department.

There may be another way. Or at least, another way that ought to be considered first, before you cut any sports.

You could do what Iowa State did

Iowa State, like just about everybody else, is also likely to face a pretty substantial budget shortfall in the coming months. But unlike anybody else so far, they took some bold and decisive action.

Via the school’s announcement to Iowa State fans, the program committed to the following:

1. A one-year, temporary pay reduction for athletics department coaches and certain staff. This comprehensive plan will reduce total payroll by more than $3M.

2. A one-year, temporary suspension of all bonuses/incentives for all coaches. This decision will save the department $1M.

3. Delaying (from January 2021 to January 2022) a previously announced increase in Cyclone Club annual giving levels. The delay will save donors approximately $2.5M for required seating donations.

4. A freeze on season / individual game ticket prices for all sports.

5. An extension to the deadline for this year's Cyclone Club donations and football season ticket renewals to May 29, 2020.  

6. Providing multiple payment options for season tickets and donations. Those required payments can be made monthly, quarterly or semi-annually

Options #1 and #2 alone ought to mostly make up the money Iowa State isn’t getting from the NCAA Tournament or Big 12 Tournament. All six options should help the department get a ton of goodwill from the Iowa State community, and help make their games more accessible once they actually reopen.

I think Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard’s rationale here makes a ton of sense. Via The Athletic:

We wouldn’t be ready to be successful when we can re-engage as a society, not to mention just the pain that that would cause a heartache for so many people and add to the state’s problems,” Pollard said. “Because anybody you lay off is going to go on unemployment, and our state is picking up that unemployment. All I’d be doing is passing the burden on to taxpayers. So it just felt like we needed a different solution.”

For many of these departments, the salaries of a handful of people, like the head football, basketball and baseball coaches, plus the athletic director, make up a disproportionate percentage of the total department spend on salaries, and coaching and high-end administrative salaries have skyrocketed over the last decade.

Asking high earning leaders to take a hit before laying off substantially more vulnerable employees is good leadership, in my opinion, and something more organizations ought to be doing. Those coaches are still going to come out ahead of where they might have been a few years ago. Giving up a little bit now will give them additional credibility on the recruiting trail, with the university administration, and with the fanbase. If they can afford it, they ought to offer to do it.

It’s possible that more painful cuts may still need to happen down the line. Enrollment and state support could crater in 2021. Fundraising has slowed to a crawl nearly everywhere, and maybe it doesn’t pick back up again for a long time.

But I think fans will understand those cuts a little more if they believe the school and the athletic department really did everything they could to keep them. And what better way to show that than by taking the burnt of some of those sacrifices first.

It’s probably too late to cut some of the most egregious levels of fat in the athletic department budget. A school probably can’t sell that locker room waterfall at this point. You probably can’t stop the buyout checks that you have to keep sending out for the coach you fired two seasons ago.

But before you come for the wrestling team, or the swim team or the tennis team, I hope schools look inward and try to do everything else first, even if it hurts.

The kids aren’t getting paid. The least the schools can do is try to protect their opportunities for as long as they can.

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