Cutting Olympic sports is not a shared sacrifice
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I can’t lie to you guys, the news out there is pretty grim. Virtually every industry is either cutting back hours or laying folks off. Basic medical advice is becoming hyper-politicized. I planted a bunch of vegetables last week and now, on April 15, it is SNOWING in Chicago. I can’t even let my children run feral in my backyard because of the snow. Everything sucks.
And when everything sucks, it usually sucks even more in the media industry. Your local newspaper is probably laying folks off (if you can afford it, please subscribe to them). SI laid folks off. Radio stations are laying folks off. Many other major outlets, like Buzzfeed and Slate, have asked everybody to take pay cuts.
My company is no different. As of April 15 at 8:38 AM, God’s Time Zone, it’s looking like SB Nation is going to furlough quite a few people. I think it is probable that I will be in that group as well. Once that all becomes official, I’ll explain what that means for me, and for Extra Points. If an extra typo or two slips into this dispatch, well, I imagine that had something to do with it.
So I’ve been thinking about the concept of shared sacrifice quite a bit lately. There’s a good chance your office is talking about it. My office is talking about it. But if a lot of D1 athletic departments are talking about it, their public actions indicate that maybe they don’t really understand that concept.
It sure looks like a lot of schools want to cut some sports
Earlier Old Dominion University announced they are dropping their wrestling program. On Tuesday, Cincinnati became the second large D1 program to drop an Olympic sport, as they announced they’ll discontinue their men’s soccer program.
Cincinnati doesn’t have a great soccer program. AAC membership means long road trips to places like South Florida, Southern Methodist and Tulsa. They didn’t even have a coach. And hey, since the school wants to eventually join the Big 12, and that league doesn’t sponsor Men’s soccer, they’ve been thinking about dropping the sport anyway.
So I think it’s fair to say that both ODU and UC’s decisions can’t be totally blamed on COVID-19 budget problems. On some level, they were considering doing this stuff anyway, and now they have a reason to act, just like how corporate executives might use this crisis to do layoffs or budget cuts that they would have liked to do under different circumstances, but couldn’t.
Now, we have more proof that plenty of other schools would like to cut some Olympic sports. Via Yahoo:
A letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert from the Group of Five commissioners obtained by Yahoo Sports on Tuesday offers searing insight into the financial constraints felt at that level and the potential for a landscape that could look much different when sports return to campus. The fallout being discussed by those commissioners includes the potential elimination of postseason conference tournaments and shortened seasons in non-revenue sports.
The letter from the commissioners of the AAC, Mountain West, MAC, Sun Belt and Conference USA asked for alterations of NCAA bylaws in the wake of COVID-19 in order to save money. The letter asks for “temporary relief from several regulatory requirements for a period of up to four years” in order to provide “short-term relief.” The letter hopes that this relief will provide “opportunity for institutions to retrench and rebuild the financial structures of the institution.”
The requirements the conference commissioners asked for relief from hint at the fiscal peril of schools and leagues outside college athletics’ so-called Power Five. The most relevant among them is relief from the minimum number of “Sports Sponsorships,” as every FBS school is required to have a “minimum number of 16 varsity intercollegiate sports.
Other requests range from waiving football attendance requirements, the minimum number of contests to be played in varying sports to both scheduling and financial aid requirements.
We’ve seen a few other athletic directors float trial balloons over revisiting the NCAA requirement to sponsor 16 sports. This letter makes those desires even more explicit. A bunch of ADs want permission to cut sports, and perhaps, to cut other forms of student aid.
To be fair, at least one of those conference leaders, the MWC’s Craig Thompson, wanted to make explicitly clear that cutting sports was a last resort.
Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson, who signed the letter, told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday that the point was to come up with ways to make financial pinches in order to avoid sports being cut.
“We have to be creative in these times,” Thompson said in a phone interview. “I cannot emphasize enough that our intent is to maintain the same level of sports sponsorships. Is there a way to work on the edges or requirements, like the minimum number of contests? How can we reduce sports without eliminating sports?”
But if that’s true, why ask for permission to cut sports at all?
Cutting sports may not save money. And even if it did, it sure isn’t shared sacrifice
I’ve mentioned this before, but the budget math behind getting rid of an Olympic sports program is fuzzy, at best. Many of these sports only allow 9.9 athletic scholarships per team, spread out over multiple athletes, so plenty of these kids are still paying some level of tuition and fees. If the school drops a sport but doesn’t replace that athlete with a regular student paying at least that much in tuition, the athletic department “saves” money, but the school doesn’t.
Depending on the enrollment goals of the school and what kinds of athletes they’re recruiting, that means some Olympic sports programs could very well actually be “profitable”, or at the very least, aren’t bleeding as much money as the athletic department spreadsheets might suggest. Cincinnati seems to think the school will save about 800K a year without men’s soccer. I strongly suspect the real number would be smaller.
But even if axing a soccer program here, or a track program there, does bring in a few nickels to the athletic department, the population who will bear the burden the most will be the students, the folks who make the least money (that would be zero) and have the least power. Yes, it means a soccer coach, who probably makes at least close to six figures, will be out of a job, and that really does suck. It means a few assistants will lose income too, which is terrible. But it also means perhaps dozens of 20-year-olds will not have the same access to a college education.
A lot of people have gotten rich over the last decade, thanks to boom times within the college athletics industry. Football coaches have seen their salaries absolutely explode. There are college baseball managers who now make more than their professional counterparts. The number of lawyers, vendors, administrators, and assistant coach types, even at schools of more modest means, has grown and grown. The players got a better snack bar.
It is entirely possible that cuts to sports, or cuts to student aid, are unavoidable, especially if broadcast revenue is interrupted, or university enrollment plummets. But it ought to be the absolute last thing any school does.
The first thing ought to be salary cuts. Plenty of schools, like Iowa State, Wyoming, Louisville, Oregon State and more, have seen their highest-earning coaches and administrators take voluntary cuts. Even just a few folks at the top of the org chart eating a modest 5-10% cut would free up hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, for an athletic department. If they really wanted to, Cincinnati could scare up $800,000 by trimming from just a half dozen coaches.
The conference commissioners asked for a few other concessions, some of which make sense, some of which do not. Nobody is paying any attention to requirements about football attendance (at LEAST a third of the G5 is not in compliance with the spirit of that rule, if not the letter), so I’m not sure what a formal waiver is supposed to do. But dropping the length of certain seasons, or getting out of certain schedule benchmarks, is a common-sense move that could free up lots of money. After all, it costs just as much to fly a softball player somewhere as it does a basketball player. No reason to do it a dozen times a year if it can possibly be avoided.
I have two other suggestions for schools looking to save money before cuts
1) Quickly and urgently, release a proposal that allows for athletes to monetize the name, imagine and likeness, and pledge to either help facilitate or allow, a system of group licensing for stuff like video games and trading cards. Don’t wait for the federal government or the courts to do it, and don’t let it linger in administrative hell. Do it quickly.
For one, this gives the NCAA and member institutions some badly needed political goodwill, something that should not be discounted as the NCAA continues to face legislative and media scrutiny. Cuts a little easier to stomach if you can also point to athletes getting something, especially now.
But this will also open up a potential new revenue stream. A group licensing deal with players will make a new NCAA football video game possible, along with other possible games on mobile and console devices. No reason the schools can’t get a cut of those deals as well. Will those individual school fees be massive, or come right away? Probably not, but nobody should turn away from reliable new revenue streams right now.
2) Work to waive any requirements that force a school to park all of their sports in a specific conference, if that conference offers it. I.e, right now, Penn State, as a Big Ten member in good standing, couldn’t decide to park their baseball programs in the MAC, since the Big Ten also sponsors baseball.
One of the very best ways to save money with Olympic sports programs is to travel, and it doesn’t make sense to force soccer, volleyball and baseball teams to adhere to the same discordant, complicated geographic schedule that might only make sense for football and basketball. If a school decides they want to give their athletes the opportunity to play college baseball, but they want to “downgrade” a bit to play a tighter geographic schedule, that ought to be allowed. If a school wants to play up a level, that should be okay too.
Right now, we have a slew of outlier programs, forced into ambitious travel schedules, where their teams might not even be competitive. Let’s not make Rutgers volleyball ship all over the midwest to get clobbered, when the program can continue to exist if they focus on playing teams in the northeast. If Michigan decides they really want to invest in baseball and compete on a national stage, let them join the ACC if they want.
That flexibility will lead to more competitive matchups, more geographically focused schedules, a better product, and saved money. It’s worth reworking the tier 3 rights on conference networks, and checking egos, to make it work.
We should probably talk more about what being a D1 institution should even mean
There’s nothing even close to institutional equality in D1. There are schools with $30 million dollar budgets competing against schools with $200 million budgets. There are schools that are smaller than some high schools competing against schools with the enrollment of a mid-sized city.
A 16-sport requirement, if nothing else, serves as some sort of benchmark for institutional buy-in and commitment to athletics. It’s supposed to create SOME sort of standard, to indicate that having a D1 athletic program means something.
If that’s going to be eliminated or significantly adjusted, there ought to be a real and difficult conversation about what the benchmarks for D1 membership ought to be. What is that designation supposed to signify? Should it be realigned to make it easier for similar institutions to compete on a more balanced playing field? Should schools that share very little in common continue to share competitive and legislative systems?
Personally, if a school has to drop to only sponsoring 10 sports, I’m not sure what the point is of maintaining the fiction that they meaningfully compete with Ohio State, or Texas, or Alabama. It would make more sense to redefine those divisional lines across benchmarks that are more grounded in current realities.
But what do I know? I’m just a blogger. Surely there are plenty of factors I’m not properly considering.
But I do know what shared sacrifice is supposed to mean. If the budget sword must fall, it shouldn’t fall only, or disproportionately, on those who already give the most and get the least.
Not at a factory. Not at a media company. And not in an athletic department.
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