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The math behind Akron and Bowling Green's sports cuts doesn't seem to add up

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Late last week, two schools in the MAC took drastic measures to save money. They decided to cut sports.

In terms of the number of sports, Akron made the most dramatic cut of anybody at the D1 level, when they announced they would end their men’s golf, men’s cross country, and women’s tennis programs last Thursday. Via the school website’s FAQ page:

The University’s Department of Athletics will discontinue three intercollegiate athletics programs at the end of the 2019-20 academic year as part of its planned $4.4 million expenditure reductions for the upcoming fiscal year. The affected programs include men’s cross country, men’s golf and women’s tennis. As part of its plan to reduce the Athletics budget in keeping with the financial realities the University is facing, additional components, including salary reductions for select coaches and administrators, staff position eliminations, and scholarship and operating reductions will yield the target financial savings.Why is this being done?The action is being taken as part of the University’s overall budget restructuring efforts due to the financial realities the University is facing. The University asked Athletics to develop a plan to significantly reduce the University’s financial support to the Athletics department and that recommendation does so by approximately 23 percent ($4.4 million) for fiscal year 2021 and beyond.

On Friday, fellow MAC-member Bowling Green announced they would discontinue their baseball team. Via the school:

Bowling Green, Ohio – Bowling Green State University today announced that it has eliminated the baseball program effective immediately. This action is being taken as part of a plan for a $2 million reduction to the operating budget of the intercollegiate athletics department. …"While we remain committed to supporting Division I athletics programs, we must do this in a financially sustainable approach," said BGSU President Rodney K. Rogers. "We have made the difficult decision to eliminate the baseball program due to financial constraints. This decision was not made lightly, and does not reflect the rich history of the program, including five Mid-American Conference championships and four NCAA regional appearances."

BGSU’s move was a bit surprising, seeing as AD Bob Moosbrugger played baseball for the Falcons, and served on the Division I Baseball Committee last season.

Even the schools say the majority of the savings from these plans won’t come from cutting sports

Bowling Green’s athletic department plan calls for a $2 million reduction, one that will cut from every sport. But cutting baseball is only projected to save $500,000, according to the school’s FAQ page.

For what it’s worth, according to data the school submitted to the Department of Education, they spend even less on baseball. Bowling Green’s EADA profile shows $226,308 in operating expenses for baseball. The average head coaching salary for a men’s sport, per the EADA profile, is $224,060.

The EADA metrics for Akron tell a similar story. Operational expenses for men’s golf ($79,908), women’s tennis ($101,195 ) and Men’s Cross Country (Akron reported $198,619 in operational costs for “all Track combined”, as XC isn’t individually reported) don’t come close to adding up to $4.4 million, even if you account for coaching salaries.

When I reached out to Akron for comment, a university spokesman told me

“While the EADA Reports are a good indicator of a institutions spending in college athletics, it does not cover the entire costs of running a program. Yesterday’s announcement accounts for approximately 25% of the $4.4M budget reduction athletics will be taking at UA.”

The administrator added that the EADA metrics do not fully account for spending on scholarships, benefits and other salaries. And to be fair, he wouldn’t be the first school administrator to point out that the Department of Education numbers don’t capture the full story. Via The Athletic, here’s Florida Tech’s university president, discussing his school’s data after they decided to drop football:

But McCay said those numbers aren’t all-inclusive for the private school, leaving out academic aid and other costs. The size of the team is more than one-third of all athletes at the school.

“If I were to give you the real numbers on losses on football and losses on athletics in general, it’s fairly staggering,” he said. “I wish (the DOE numbers) were true. If that was really accurate, we’d still have football today.”

So maybe there are some unaccounted for costs. Still, Akron’s significant cuts, per their accounting, only save the school $1.1 million of the $4.4 they’re looking to save. Bowling Green cut a historic program that their own AD played for, and it’s still only 25% of the savings the department is hoping for.

Plus, there’s reason to be skeptical they’re even saving that much money

Remember, not everybody on the roster for a D1 baseball, golf, cross country or tennis program is on full scholarship. So if a school is trying to increase enrollment (and every regional public school in Ohio absolutely is), there’s a chance the school could be losing out on increased tuition by dropping a sport and sending dozens of students elsewhere, especially students who may have been paying out of state tuition.

I wrote earlier that it may very well make sense for schools to add sports now, not cut them.

Bowling Green’s baseball roster, for example, has 16 players from outside Ohio. Akron’s women’s tennis team doesn’t have a single person from Ohio on the roster. It is entirely possible that significant tuition money might be left on the table here, if any of those students were paying anything close to sticker price to come to school.

In an interview with the Golf Channel, Akron’s golf coach said he asked if the team could fund-raise and self-fund their scholarships, like the baseball and women’s lacrosse team, in an additional effort to save money. The school apparently wasn’t interested:

Trainor asked about potentially fundraising to keep his program afloat. Last year, the university brought back baseball and added women’s lacrosse with the caveat that both teams self-fund their scholarships.

“But that wasn’t on the table,” Trainor said

Akron declined to elaborate on what other cuts the department was planning to make to get to $4.4 million in savings, but said the university will make an announcement when those cuts occur.

If you aren’t going to save THAT much money, why make the cuts?

Here, I can only offer my educated speculation.

And first, let me say that I’m not assuming any malevolent intent or anything. Akron, Bowling Green, and all sorts of public regional colleges throughout the Midwest, are facing terrible financial choices. State support is being cut, enrollment has been declining for years, and everybody has to make really difficult choices.

There are probably some savings that can be realized by dropping sports that don’t show up so easily on an EADA or USA TODAY database. If a school doesn’t have as many scholarship athletes, it’s entirely possible they won’t need to spend as much money on athletic support. If you get 30+ athletes off the payroll, that could mean you could let some trainers or tutors go, or save money on other vending contracts.

I’m not sure there’s a ton of fat to really cut here either. There may be colleges that are paying strength coaches $800,000 and coordinators over a million, but not in the MAC. Zip head football coach Tom Arth is one of the worst paid head football coaches in FBS at $500,000, and Bowling Green’s Scot Loeffler is just barely ahead at $530,000. Both schools have assistants making under six figures.

Because there may not be as much fat (or at least, obvious fat) from other programs, an AD could be in a very difficult situation. If you spread the cuts around every program so no sports are cut, you could risk making it impossible for your other programs to compete at a high level. If Bowling Green was in a difficult financial situation now, could it ever expect to get much better if their football, basketball or men’s hockey programs couldn’t improve?

This, of course, begs the question. Do you really need football?

I’m not the first person to suggest Akron get out of the FBS football game.

Terry Pluto, a columnist and sports institution in Ohio, recently said it was time for Akron to drop a level (along with the rest of the MAC). When Akron cut their baseball team back in 2015 (it has since been restored), faculty suggested the wrong sport was being cut. The local newspaper penned a memorable column that pointed out less than a hundred fans showed up at kickoff against Eastern Michigan. Cleveland’s The Scene wrote an editorial earlier in May clamoring for Akron to drop down. The list goes on.

It would be one thing if Akron had anything resembling a football tradition or fanbase or success, like Bowling Green. But the Zips have usually been pretty bad, a rare feat in a parity-driven league like the MAC. Akron has won more than seven games in a season exactly once. They’ve qualified for just three bowl games. Last season, they went 0-12.

Even under the best of circumstances, building Akron into a consistent winner is going to be very challenging. Akron shares a dwindling audience in NE Ohio with Kent State and Youngstown State, a strong FCS program. They’re not paying much in salary. They have to play at least one bodybag game just to come close to balancing the books (Akron is scheduled to travel to Clemson this season, and to Ohio State and Auburn in 2021). To try and grow this program with even less money now might be impossible.

Bowling Green at least has history and tradition, but their financial situation is also challenging, and their schedules might be even tougher. The Falcons are supposed to play at Ohio State and Illinois this season, and have multiple road P5 games scheduled in many future seasons, including trips to Penn State, Texas A&M, Michigan, and Arizona State.

Dropping to FCS football (or out of the sport entirely) or significantly trying to re-calibrate athletic department expectations, may require a level of political capital unavailable to either institution. While I am skeptical that dropping any of these sports will generate significant institutional savings, it is possible that this is still the best possible solution that impacts the athletes across the entire department in the least intrusive manner.

It’s my hope that as schools sit down and figure out what to do, that they take a broad, institutional-wide approach, instead of just doing what clears money off the athletic department balance sheet. I hope they will continue to exhaust every other possible plan before they cut student opportunities. I hope they will be unafraid to tackle sacred cows with football and basketball programs. And I hope that if economic circumstances improve, that they’ll be able to attempt to bring those programs back.

Akron, after all, was able to do this with their baseball team. So did Oregon. UAB was able to bring football back. These examples are rare, but they do exist.

But the news will probably get worse before it gets better. As D1Baseball lamented,

We’d like to say Bowling Green will be the only institution to cut baseball during this pandemic, but that is likely wishful thinking at this point.

Here’s hoping they’re wrong.

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