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Okay, with that, let’s direct our attention to Old Dominion University.
Cutting wrestling might not be the only big change coming at ODU
To the best of my knowledge, Old Dominion cut the first D1 program in the COVID-19 crisis era, as they discontinued their wrestling program last week to help save money.
The intrepid reporters at the Virginian-Pilot got ahold of the actual document that made the case for ODU dropping wrestling. It was a report created by Dr. Richard L. Sander, a former AD at Virginia Commonwealth and East Tennessee State, who works as a consultant. You can read the entire PDF on the V-P website linked above.
There are two particularly interesting ideas raised by this document, and both could have implications beyond just ODU.
Joining Conference USA cost ODU millions, and perhaps the school should leave
Dr. Sander does not seem to think too highly of the current Conference USA landscape. From the very beginning of the study, Dr. Sander says that “the two biggest concerns facing ODU athletics are 1) funding a complete FBS sports program and 2) conference affiliation.”
When unpacking the various national trends that will make ODU’s financial outlook more challenging, Sander specifically singles out the C-USA membership, which has changed quite a bit since ODU initially joined the league. And honestly, I think it’s hard to argue against this conclusion:
It’s going to be harder to sell tickets for any sporting event against UTSA, Charlotte, and Florida International than it would have been with Memphis, SMU and Houston still in the conference. In theory, many of the newer additions to the league have high potential, as larger universities in bigger markets. But in the present, the fan interest just isn’t there. That’s also completely tanked the league’s media revenues and plan, and it’s pretty easy to argue now that C-USA has the worst TV deal in FBS, when you consider both revenue distributions and potential exposure.
Some C-USA institutions may have much higher financial risk exposure than other FBS institutions. Outside of Rice, this generally isn’t a league full of schools with massive endowments. It’s a league of more regional public universities, schools that depend on student fees and tuition to pay the bills, and could be taking revenue haircuts at every level. Because of that, perhaps more than just about anybody else, the league is going to need to be creative in figuring out how to save money.
According to this story from ODUSports.com, the league is already doing that. Old Dominion athletic director Dr. Wood Selig will serve on a committee with other administrators to specifically look at ways for the league to save money.
The two biggest expenses for Conference USA and its members are regular-season schedule and championship events.
"We're going to explore every single sport," he said. "We will take the scheduling model for the regular season and see what we can do differently.
"Are we playing the right number of games? Do we need fewer (conference) games to reduce travel costs? Do we need to play maybe closer within the conference to reduce travel and missed class time and reduce expenses? Everything is on the table."
Currently, the football championship is played at the game of the highest-seeded team and basketball tournaments are held at The Star complex owned by the Dallas Cowboys in Frisco, Texas. The committee has yet to begin discussing championship events.
"We're going to look at are they in the right location?" Selig said "Are we running them the right way? Are we taking the right number of teams to championships? How much do the championship events cost for schools and for the league?
"It will be interesting to determine how much we're investing in championships and determine can we scale that back."
C-USA has been willing to try some outside the box ideas before, from adjusting basketball scheduling to maximize RPI chances to airing games on the NFL Network. I’d guess this committee would be more empowered to try something unique to find a few more nickels under the couch cushions than a similar committee in a league that could benefit from cost-cutting…like say, the Pac-12.
But even if the league tweaks the conference game schedule to minimize travel, and asks some executives to cut their salaries, it might not change ODU’s fundamental problem, as least, according to this study. They’re not likely to sell enough tickets, get enough exposure, or make enough money, to reach their strategic vision for their athletic department.
But that’s the question. Do they even have any other options?
Let’s say ODU decides Conference USA isn’t going to work out. Where else could they go? The school could probably end up saving significantly on travel costs by operating as an independent (no more trips to El Paso!), but if their media rights money is bad now, it would be almost non-existent going alone. Going to the Sun Belt might be slightly better athletically, but their TV money is also terrible, and you might have the same ticket problem (is Arkansas State or Louisiana-Monroe gonna sell Tidewater Tickets?).
Basically, every blogger has suggested that Conference USA and the Sun Belt merge, or swap teams, or work together to try and build something more geographically cohesive. And hey, on paper, they probably could! A league with WKU, MTSU, ODU, Marshall, Charlotte, App State, Georgia Southern and Georgia State, or something like that, would probably have an easier time selling tickets AND would save money.
But while us unwashed basement typists and degenerate tweeters have constantly called for this, I fully recognize it would be, perhaps, the most ambitious crossover event in history. It would be a massive logistical undertaking and would require dozens of high-level administrators to check egos, renegotiate media deals, and build essentially two entirely new leagues. Is that the smarter idea? Maybe, but inertia is a powerful force. I don’t think I’d bet on that.
I think it’s probably accurate that ODU is not going to be able to maximize their athletic department under the current C-USA membership. But if they want to change that, short of the heavens opening and a miracle AAC invitation presenting itself (something that’s a whole lot less likely now that the whole world knows this program is hard up for money), ODU is probably going to have to pull at Mountain West, and organize a new conference themselves.
Virginia law also presents some financial challenges, which also maybe makes cutting sports wrong?
If you aren’t getting a massive TV check every year, student fees are probably a major way your athletic department gets funded. Personally, I think this policy is usually terrible, especially for schools that serve large amounts of commuter students, non-traditional students, or students of modest means. Essentially “taxing” populations of students who are less likely to benefit from athletics to prop up the enterprise, in an era where college is getting even more expensive every year, isn’t fair.
Not everybody feels that way, and it’s still an important revenue source. But Virginia has state laws that seek to limit how much a school can rely on those fees. From the report:
I’d argue those restrictions probably make the regular college student better off, but I can certainly imagine how they could make life harder for a college administrator right now.
But if anything, that honestly makes the decision to cut wrestling more curious.
The report itself mentions that ODU is likely to face some enrollment challenges in the near future, along with just about every other university, as a national decline in four-year enrollment is likely to escalate amid the economic uncertainty of a coming recession.
If that’s true, then is there not a risk that you won’t be able to fill the seat that your partial-scholarship wrestler occupied with a student who will pay more in tuition? If the money you save from scholarships, coaching and travel is offset by decreased revenue from tuition, then you didn’t actually save any money by cutting the sport. This study appears silent on the enrollment impact of cutting sports.
This calculus is a huge reason why DIII schools continue to sponsor sports programs, even though nobody is “making money” from TV or ticket revenue for DIII anything. Sports are a good way to attract and maintain new enrollment!
One last note from this study that I think is worth mentioning….
Money doesn’t buy happiness. Or wins.
The report explicitly mentions that ODU shouldn’t cut funding from football or basketball in an attempt to balance the budget. In fact, those programs should get more money, as they lag behind “aspirational peers” like Memphis basketball and Boise State football in terms of budgets.
I’m not sure this is necessarily true. According to USA TODAY, ODU has the largest athletic department budget in Conference USA. The program spent over $45 million in 2018, compared to $35 million at FAU, $33 at UTEP, or $24 at Louisiana Tech. Their football salary pool was competitive with almost everybody in their league.
When things have been cooking, ODU football could absolutely expect to play a poor performing P5 team like Kansas, or Rutgers, or Oregon State, and not just win, but kick their ass, even though those schools might have a budget twice the size. And when the team is struggling, like they did last season, an FCS team with a tiny budget could certainly beat them.
There’s not exactly a linear relationship between money and wins. Giving a coach a $500,000 raise doesn't magically make him a $500,000 better football coach, after all, and while the school could make investments to make their recruiting operations more efficient and successful, one shouldn’t expect a program to replicate the results at Boise State or Memphis just because their budgets are equal. Culture, scheduling philosophy, scheme, and plain ol’ luck don’t show up on the balance sheet.
If a G5 school cannot project financial sustainability or success with its strategic department goals without their football team reaching Boise State levels of success, in my opinion, they should get out of the FBS football world entirely. There’s only one Boise State, and that’s Boise State. Throwing money and resources chasing that extremely unlikely goal is probably going to leave a lot of people disappointed. If you’re not getting positive outcomes from going 7-5 and making a bowl game in Alabama, you’re in the wrong business.
ODU just spent a bunch of money on their football stadium and went through a lot of work bringing that program back from the dead. I doubt they could get out of football, even if they wanted to. Maybe they don’t need to at all. Maybe they can spearhead a new conference solution that allows them to bus to most of their games, and provide a better experience for their players and fans.
But if a school with the fan support, location, facilities, money and history of ODU is having these kinds of programs already, I think a whole lot of D1 schools better start calling some meetings. Because they’ll need to figure some stuff out too.
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