An actual existential threat to college athletics

What happens if the colleges go broke? Or have to merge?

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

Quick housekeeping note, I recorded a podcast segment on my recent EWU and Colorado State newsletters for the 247Sports “College Football Daily”, which I believe will publish on Monday. Also, by the time you read this newsletter, I’ll be recording a segment with my pals at The Intercollegiate. Look for that later next week as well. I’ll share links as I get them.

I have to admit, it has felt a little weird spending time getting really into the weeds of college football stuff this week, since it feels like the rest of the world is especially on fire. Fears over the spread of COVID-19 now are threatening international sporting events, and maybe even the dang Olympics, which feels like an especially stark example of the proverbial Real World bleeding into sports.

I mean, it’s always there, but you really can’t even pretend to avoid it in a story like a possible global pandemic.

I’ve reached out to about ten conference commissioners to see if they’re discussing what they might do if COVID-19, or any other illness outbreak or natural disaster, restricts travel. It’s not a problem that college athletics has had to deal with very often. It’s one thing to move a football game to the morning because of EEE concerns like Merrimack did earlier this season. It’s another thing altogether to play in empty stadiums, cancel games, or more. As best as I can gather right now, college athletics hasn’t really had to grapple with anything like that since the 1918 Spanish Flu.

Most leagues haven’t gotten back to me yet. The Big Ten declined to comment. A Mountain West Conference spokesperson told me:

Yes, we have regulations/bylaws that guide any type of interruption (government shutdown, national emergency, natural disaster, air quality, travel issues, weather, etc.) to athletic competitions. Ultimately, we would consult with all appropriate parties to determine the appropriate plan of action with the ultimate authority invested with the commissioner.

And Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill told me that the league is monitoring the situation, and will add it to the agenda of their upcoming league meetings. Wistrcill added that he’s grateful that the NCAA is monitoring the situation.

I’ll share more info as I hear from more administrators.

Hopefully, everything gets under control and any contingency plans remain only plans. But if this situation evolves like the CDC thinks it might, everybody, from your local school district to your favorite athletic conference, is going to need some new ideas.

Disease outbreak isn’t what I would have predicted to be an existential threat to college athletics in 2020. That may very well be the most immediate and direct threat to conducting business as usual, but it isn’t the only one.

I’ve been thinking about another potential threat to college athletics lately. No, not transfers. C’mon, I’m a blogger, not a million-dollar head coach.

What if colleges start running out of money? Or students?

This isn’t a crazy hypothetical here. Let’s consider this story from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The long-predicted crisis in higher education is upon us.

It’s hitting both public and private institutions. Publics in states like Alaska, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are grappling with consolidations and financial strain, declining revenues, and uncertain futures. Even in New York, which has set up a free-college program for public institutions, administrators fret over a projected drop-off of tens of thousands of students in the years to come.

Private colleges, meanwhile, have seen a wave of closures in states like Massachusetts and Vermont. But leaders of private institutions in other states fear theirs may be next. At the Council of Independent Colleges’ annual conference for presidents, held in Florida last month, the worry and weariness was palpable. Attendees packed rooms with discussions on college finance, mergers, and the declining numbers of students coming out of high school.

The Chronicle’s latest enrollment survey of 292 institutions, conducted with the CIC and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, makes clear that stress, pain, and uncertainty plague the nation’s private colleges and regional universities. Over all, about 60 percent of public and private institutions responding to the survey missed their enrollment goals, although private colleges were more likely to miss their goals by a wider margin. Sixty-seven percent of institutions did not meet their net-revenue goals, with public institutions hurting slightly more.

I’ve written about this dynamic a few times on Extra Points. but we have even more data now that suggests a dropoff in enrollment isn’t just an informed guess based on demographic data, but an immediate reality.

There are multiple reasons for why schools might miss both enrollment and revenue targets. The US is not producing as many college students as it did a few years ago, and there’s plenty of competition for those students, including from online schools. Political realities may make international student recruitment, particularly from places like China, India or the Middle East, even more complicated.

If you couple those headwinds with declining state support, would-be students even more wary of debt, and difficulty in projecting and planning enrollment levels, and you could have some big problems.

Tiny colleges, particularly in low population centers, would be especially vulnerable, but they’re not the only ones. The largest private college in Oregon just shut down, leaving thousands of students in a lurch. And even some D1 institutions could face negative consequences. Northern Iowa, for example, is mentioned in the story as sitting at its lowest enrollment since 1982.

How exactly this dynamic plays out will vary a lot from school to school. If you’re a fan of a major state flagship or R1 research university with a gazillion dollar endowment, I imagine your program will probably be okay in the short term. But if you’re a fan of a smaller, less wealthy regional university, there may be some cause for concern.

It’s entirely possible that some of these schools, particularly smaller ones, may pursue strategies to grow enrollment that might change some of the marketing values of a college athletics program. For example, if your school decided to strategically focus on growing enrollment among immigrant communities, would funding a robust college football program be the best way to market your school to that group? What if you were trying to recruit more non-traditional students? Maybe that money is better invested somewhere else. Maybe not.

At the absolute least, if a school is missing enrollment targets by the thousands, buying out that basketball coach contract is going to seem like more of a luxury than a necessity. If their credit score dips, or it appears to be a shakier investment (and this happens!), any infrastructure investment (new buildings, for example) gets a lot more expensive. Recruiting, from new athletes to new coaches to new regular ol’ staffers, is going to be more difficult. Nobody wants to go somewhere that they perceive to be on shakier ground.

I would not be surprised to hear of more DII or DIII schools merging, in an effort to keep costs down. Locally here in Chicago, Roosevelt University just decided to do this with Robert Morris, but chances are, somebody in your state is considering something similar. I would not be surprised if others decided to get out of sports altogether.

I don’t think that is likely to happen at the D1 level, even if I continue to argue that some of those schools probably shouldn’t be in the big-time athletics business.

But those conversations that I’ve been recently writing about at places like Eastern Washington and Colorado State, where faculty members question the athletic spending status quo, are largely borne out of concerns over increasingly scarce resources. If enrollment shrinks across large swaths of American universities, those resources are going to get even more scarce, and schools, at the very least, must be prepared to vigorously defend what they’re trying to accomplish with big-budget athletics. What was tenable in 2006 might not be so tenable in 2026.

Of course, maybe another superbug comes along and wipes us all out before we could fret about the sustainability of Summit League athletics. That could always happen, I guess.

Enjoy your weekend everybody!

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Questions, comments, story ideas, mailbag questions and COVID-19 survival techniques can be sent to MattBrownOhio@gmail.com, or to @MattBrownEP on Twitter dot com.