Need to save some money? Why not ADD some sports instead of dropping them?

Want to cut down on travel costs? Want to boost enrollment? Forget cutting...why not add a program or two?

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I won’t lie to y’all…those subscriptions really help! I am now officially funemployed, which means now is the perfect time to try and scrounge up a few more bucks each month, and to find more things to cut in the ol’ family budget.

As you’re probably aware, college athletic departments are all in a similar boat. Without typical revenues from the NCAA Tournament, spring sports, and declining donations, ticket sales and gameday revenue, athletic leaders all over the country are looking for ways to save money. Maybe that means asking high earners to take a temporary pay cut. Maybe that means limiting travel for out-of-conference events. Maybe that means layoffs.

It might even mean dropping sports. After all, conference leaders from the Group of Five asked the NCAA for a blanket waiver that would allow them to temporarily sponsor less than the required 16 sports needed for D1 membership. While many have been adamant that they don’t want to cut sports, it’s hard to see why you’d try to get permission to cut sports if you weren’t at least thinking about it. Old Dominion dropped their wrestling program recently. Cincinnati dropped men’s soccer. Green Bay got rid of tennis.

It is probable those won’t be the only D1 programs to drop a sport, and on paper, it isn’t hard to understand why. Most Olympic sports do not generate a lot of ticket revenue. They don’t generate a lot of broadcast revenue. You have to pay the coaches, pay to fly the team everywhere, pay for their equipment…all for something that might generate less than six figures of direct income to the department. If you have to cut stuff, why not cut the cost centers, right?

That thinking might make sense if we limit ourselves to just the athletic department balance sheet. But that would be missing the point.

Here’s a crazy idea. Rather than trying to balance the ol’ budget by cutting sports, some schools ought to look into adding even more athletic programs

Hear me out.

So most Olympic sports programs — your wrestling, your lacrosse, your swim teams, etc., do not have every athlete on scholarship. A program might only have 9.9 total scholarships available that they have to divide up among the whole team. Some schools don’t even fund the maximum amount of scholarships permitted (for example, men’s swimming allows for 9.9 scholarships, but the D1 average is about six).

So depending on how large your roster is and what kinds of students you’re recruiting, your Olympic sports team could actually bring in quite a bit of tuition revenue to the school, money that doesn’t show up on the athletic department balance sheet, but certainly does for the school.

So if you start a new team, recruit a bunch of out of state kids on partial or no scholarship, and those kids wouldn’t have attended the university anyway, you might actually make money.

Inside Lacrosse makes a similar argument:

That’s where lacrosse enters. It’s the second-largest roster among men’s sports (DI men's lacrosse teams averaged 47 members in 2020) and offers just 12.6 scholarships, fewer than football, basketball, hockey and equal to track/cross-country. In other words, by subtracting scholarships from roster spots, men’s lacrosse has the capacity to drive more tuition dollars than any other men’s niche/Olympic/non-revenue sport. One longtime lacrosse industry executive even recommends lacrosse coaches consider proactively reducing the number of scholarships available to extend that advantage the sport has. Also, anecdotally, philanthropic dollars follow close behind, as does academic relevance in some of the country’s markets that are most heavily trafficked by recruiters searching for students.

To the degree that colleges and universities are forced to reconsider the financial role that the athletic department plays on campus, men’s lacrosse should be examined for its ability to drive enrollment and associated revenue better than most other options. It's a strategy that's been employed for a decade or more by Division II and Division III colleges across the country — some highly competitive, some not as competitive, but almost all still in existence — and it may be a mechanism that more DI institutions should consider.

There are startup costs for sure, but schools at the DII and DIII level have used sports explicitly to drive enrollment for years, often with real success. There’s no reason that strategy couldn’t be employed at the D1 level as well, so long as operational costs are well managed.

Lacrosse is just one potential example. Greg Earhart, the Executive Director of the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America , or CSCAA, told me that adding swimming programs could certainly be a cash positive decision as well.

“Absolutely. Schools should be adding sports, especially sports like swimming or wrestling, where a small scholarship investment can net you a large roster. A single swimming scholarship could bring in between 3-6 swimmers, and you can field teams that are competitive with your peers relatively quickly.”

Earhart cited a 2015 study, conducted by the MAC and MVC, that showed co-ed swimming programs produced a net “profit” of $869,396, when you factor in revenue from tuition and fees.

Plus, the more schools add teams, the more money everybody saves.

One common thread I’m hearing in my conversations with college athletic administrators, and reading in their interviews, is that just about every school would like to save money on travel costs.

For many programs, that’s probably pretty doable if they make an effort to schedule regionally. Sure, the RPI might get dinged a few times, but there are lots of places where there are tons of other D1 institutions within a four-hour drive. Here’s Chicago, for example. Every green dot represents a D1 school:

That’s a lot of dots! Maybe not every one of those dots sponsors every sport that you’d need, but there are plenty of potential options there.

But not every place is Chicago. Here’s the mountain west region:

Growing up in the Midwest has sort of ruined my ability to look at these maps, because I just assume that every state can be traversed in four hours. Oh, Salt Lake City to Denver? How far could that be, right? It’s over 500 miles, or an eight hour + drive. Turns out…not every state is Indiana! Still, if you squint, you might be able to cobble together a schedule that you can handle mostly by bus, right?

Well, maybe. That’s a map for D1 schools. But a lot of those schools do not sponsor lots of sports. For example, here’s that same map, but for Men’s soccer:

Looking a lot more sparse, huh? Here’s that same map for Men’s swimming:

Same situation. Men’s lacrosse is even more brutal. Only Utah, Denver and Air Force, have programs. Arizona State, Denver, Colorado College, Air Force and the Alaskas are the only western programs with men’s hockey programs {Editor’s Note: Thank you for the reminders, an earlier version of this post forgot Colorado College} And there are other regions, from the Great Plains, and, depending on the sport, even the South, where bus trips can be hard.

Without regional opponents, the financial benefits you might get from launching a program get trimmed. Utah lacrosse, for example, was slated to fly to Cleveland, Boston and Charlottesville in consecutive weeks. They had four New England trips, plus trips to North and South Carolina, the year before. Arizona State men’s hockey travels to Alaska and all over the East Coast. Grand Canyon soccer had to play at Virginia Tech, plus conference trips to Texas and Colorado. The list goes on.

If a few more local universities added soccer, or swimming, or lacrosse, or other sports, the travel costs for everybody within 400 miles could decrease, plus everybody would still enjoy the enrollment benefits. Northern Arizona, or Southern Utah, or Utah State, or Oklahoma State or Ole Miss or a slew of other schools could potentially benefit from expanding their sport profiles, even if it meant redirecting a few bucks from football or postponing another project. Heck, their entire regions could benefit too.

Is that going to be easy? No. But I don’t think it’s impossible

Of course, making any kind of investment right now is going to be a challenge. But perhaps this is a message an ambitious athletic director could take to their donors…in a time when the academic and athletic world is contracting, we want to be able to expand. A gift to help endow a swimming scholarship in 2021 could be substantially more effective than one given in 2041, and might have a pathway to being more cash positive for the university at large than one to say, the men’s basketball program.

Just brainstorming here, but it would be wonderful if there were entities outside of individual school donors that could help multiple universities collaboratively plan to add sports together, or could perhaps help with some of the start-up costs. The NHL has tried to help some colleges launch hockey programs, perhaps a particular philanthropist, or sports league, or Olympic committee, could help sow seeds for lacrosse or soccer? Every little grant helps.

It probably isn’t practical to ask any school to add sports that would require any significant capital costs, like hockey (or even football). But if a school already has a women’s swimming team, a men’s swimming program probably doesn’t require an entirely new pool. You don’t need a lacrosse-specific stadium to have a lacrosse team, or a soccer team. It can be done.

There are other potential reforms that might help too

Perhaps the NCAA could look at tweaking rules to allow more DII or DIII teams to play “up” a level, or to allow D1 teams to play more of those schools out of conference, to help save on travel costs. Perhaps the regular seasons for some Olympic sports could be cut down, or conference play requirements lessened. There are always other pennies to find inside the sofa cushions, after all.

If nothing else though, I hope schools continue to use this opportunity to continue to think about how their athletic programs fit in with the school holistically, not just as line items on the athletic department budget. Perhaps this is the best time to break down those organizational walls, between departments, or even between other universities. A little multi-institution thinking could help schools save some real money.

I know I’m not the only person thinking about this stuff. I’m told one D1 school is likely to announce they are adding a men’s swim program this week.

The easy thing to do is cut sports. Growing and investing is harder, for sure.

But the easy thing to do isn’t always the right one.

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