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Why did Lindenwood just cut so many sports?

On the tricky math of remodeling an athletic department

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

I’ve got lots of housekeeping-type announcements, but we’ll save those for the end of the newsletter….so be sure to read the whole thing today.

Sadly, it isn’t uncommon for D-I schools to announce they’ve decided to drop some of their athletics offerings. Earlier this year, Steve Dittmore of ADU found over 70 discontinued sports offerings at the D-I level since 2020, and over 100 at the D-II and D-III level.

These decisions are usually described as cost-saving moves. While every school’s situation is different, I am usually skeptical of this explanation, particularly for sports that are not fully funded, headcount sports. Often, a school may “make” more money from student tuition than they spend on salaries and overhead, which is why so many D-II and D-III institutions sponsor more sports than their D-I colleagues. It isn’t because D-III is sneaky good at selling lacrosse tickets.

Dropping one or two sports is one kind of story. But when a school decides to drop nine sports…that’s usually something very different.

Sadly, that’s what happened with Lindenwood University earlier this month. On Dec 1, the school announced that they were discontinuing nine NCAA sports, along with men’s and women’s cycling. Those sports included the school’s men’s and women’s swim programs, their men’s lacrosse team, their wrestling team, women’s gymnastics, and more.

It’s a massive cut, one that will impact more than 250 athletes, to say nothing of other coaches, staffers, families, and more.

So why do it? Why do it now? Was this just trying to save money in the athletic department?

Lindenwood athletic director Jason Coomer told me that the school believed it was very important to tell the athletes “as soon we knew,” rather than waiting until the end of the athletic season. “We didn’t want to wait, and we wanted to give our athletes time to plan.”

He also added that while the school is happy to help athletes potentially find new schools to continue their athletic career, Lindenwood would also honor the full scholarship obligations for any athlete who decides to remain at Lindenwood for the full duration of their undergraduate academic career.

That’s noble, but it would also run counter to the idea of dropping all of these sports to save money.

This would make sense, because the math, and rationale, behind these cuts can get complicated.

And that’s because the math can get complicated

Coomer told me that previously, Lindenwood athletics followed a similar strategy used by other private D-II schools, one that used a large athletic department as part of an “enrollment management” strategy. Essentially, that means the school would sponsor several sports, in hopes of attracting new students who will pay at least some tuition revenue that might not otherwise have considered the institution. It’s a system that many under-enrolled D-I schools do as well, although not typically to the extent that Lindenwood did.

As Dittmore pointed out, as early as 2022, it appeared Lindenwood was still committed to that strategy, even as they reclassified to D-I. A letter here, from school president Dr. John Potter dated Feb 18, 2022, stated that “Lindenwood does not have plans to reduce the total number of sponsored sports.”

In March of 2022, when I interviewed then-AD Brad Wachler and asked him that same question, he also pointed to the enrollment management strategy Lindenwood was using, and even mentioned that “on some level, some of those {smaller Olympic sports} would be our most profitable programs.” He also said, “we still believe we can fund those programs.”

Of course, Wachler left the university about two weeks after that interview. And clearly, many things have changed over the last two years.

Coomer told me that the financial health of the university is still in a strong place, pointing to the school’s “healthy endowment” that is overwhelmingly “unrestricted.” He also cited the Lindenwood Education System’s recent acquisition of Dorsey College as evidence that the school is financially healthy.

But the athletic department cuts didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Coomer told me that the downsizing of the athletic department was part of a university-wide effort to resize and rebalance other parts of the university. Specifically, Coomer cited a desire to “rebalance” the athletic department to be more in line with their new institutional peers in the Ohio Valley Conference. “Even after dropping nine NCAA sports, we’re still the largest athletic department in the OVC,” Coomer said, which “speaks to the level of how we were overbuilt before.”

These cuts could mean that more than 200 currently enrolled students could decide to leave Lindenwood, a significant number for a school with four-figure enrollment. And Coomer reiterated to me that Lindenwood would still like to grow as an institution, so they’re not trying to get smaller on purpose.

As a private school, Lindenwood doesn’t need to publish a full athletic department budget report. But thanks to the US Department of Education EADA Database, we can get a few rough financial numbers. Lindenwood reports athletic expenses of just $15 million on their report, far less than most athletic departments that sponsor north of 26 sports.

The EADA report tracks “operational” spending for specific sports…with most of the numbers being relatively modest. The men’s wrestling program, for example, reports less than $56,000 in operational expenses, and most other individual programs are listed as under $100,000. The school’s total recruiting budget, across all sports, is listed at just $159,641. We don’t have access to sport-by-sport salary or backend expenses, but from this data, I can see how one would assume Lindenwood won’t save much money by dropping sports, especially if doing so means they forgo additional tuition.

But Coomer says that also isn’t the complete picture. “When you’re growing enrollment via athletics, your expenses aren’t just salaries, scholarships and staff. For student-athletes, you have overhead in both the athletic department and the rest of campus, be that for academic instruction, or the daily needs of students. for non-student-athletes, athletic department overhead isn’t part of the operating budget equation.”

Some of that overhead relates to expenses that aren’t easily itemized by sport. If you have 250+ athletes, beyond coaches and operational personnel, you’ll also need more trainers, more SIDs, more therapists, and more everything else. Shrinking the total size of the department could allow other positions to go unfilled, as well as allow remaining staffers to focus on smaller numbers of athletes.

“There’s this assumption that we were completely fully staffed to support that many sports to begin with, which was not the case".”

So if we’re going to evaluate this decision purely on a dollars and cents perspective, the question is whether Lindenwood can recruit and retain students for less money (or at a higher tuition margin) via non-athletics related strategies…like say, buying another school.

The answer to that question, I think, is beyond what I can answer in a single newsletter, and would require more institution-specific reporting. The university did tell me that enrollment to the school was up 4.1% compared to last year.

But also, these decisions aren’t just about money

Financial balance is a critical part of running a university, especially a private school. After all, as Coomer pointed out, “as a school, we don’t seek to operate on planned deficits.” The school’s administration has a duty to be good stewards of financial resources.

But sports sponsorship, along with many other specific decisions an institution makes, aren’t just about dollars and cents. They’re also about more intangible things, like a school’s values, what kind of student they want to recruit and retain, or how athletics fits into their institutional values. Do they want to be the kind of place where a fifth of their students are also athletes? Are they committed to doing what it takes to support that many athletes?

I have to admit, I don’t know if Lindenwood made the right decision to dramatically change the size of their athletic department. I at least understand that decision, especially if the school didn’t feel like they could support everything else that comes with providing a D-I quality experience for all of their athletes.

If nothing else, I do not believe, after talking to Coomer, and other university staffers, and from trying to understand the financial data…that this was a decision that was taken lightly or a decision that was made purely to maximize short-term financial “gain”. It’s a painful decision, one with real costs.

In the coming years, especially as competition for a limited number of students heats up, and the costs of running a D-I athletic department are going to rise, many schools will be tempted to drop some of their sports.

If they do, I hope they deeply, deeply, consider the full ramifications of that decision…not just about enrollment, salary costs, or athletic department overhead…but what it means for student achievement and institutional values.

Some cuts are probably unavoidable. But hopefully, days where hundreds of athletes lose their sports all at once…will become few and far between.

Okay, so a quick recap of the housekeeping notes. As I’ve previously mentioned, I do not plan on regularly publishing newsletters for the next three weeks. I will still share a newsletter with 2024 predictions/roast my bad 2023 predictions, and I may drop in another freelance story or two, but I will not be writing and reporting every day.

Part of that is because I need to “crunch” and make sure that the next version of Athletic Director Simulator 3000 is ready for early 2024. Another major reason I’m taking a writing break is so that I can focus more attention on either finding a new buyer for Extra Points, a new strategic partner, or a new job. And also because, well, I don’t take vacations very often, and I need a minute to give my brain a rest. I want to eat too much Christmas candy, beat the new Spiderman game with my kids, go the gym more often, and not check my phone every six seconds.

I will give all of you more information about the next steps for Extra Points as soon as I possibly can. I will just say that thanks to the overwhelming response I’ve gotten from my public announcement, I am more optimistic than I’ve been for weeks that Extra Points will continue in 2024.

Thanks so much for reading, everybody. I’ll pop in a few times before 2024, because the only way I can truly get away from this newsletter is by going to South America or some other place where my phone doesn’t work…but I’m taking a quick break. I’ll see you all soon!

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