Jim Sterk is no stranger to cutting sports.
While moving Portland State to the Big Sky Conference in his first AD job, the Missouri athletic director had to drop the school’s baseball program to make room for another core sport. He’s experienced the loss of a sport in other roles, too.
Sterk’s alma mater, Western Washington, cut its football program in 2009. He suited up for the Vikings in the late ’70s, setting a school record in single-season tackles and carving out a career that put him in the school’s hall of fame.
“It’s difficult as alums, it’s difficult as fans, it’s difficult for everyone involved in the decisions that come about with those,” Sterk said Thursday. “You’re taking away opportunities for student-athletes, so that’s always a last resort.”
That last resort, though, now is a commonality across the nation. Over the last few weeks, a number of Division I programs have slashed certain sports, largely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. To this point, at least eight schools have cut one sport, with three cutting multiple.
Cincinnati, Old Dominion, Florida International, Akron, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Furman and East Carolina have combined to cut 14 sports, which affects at least 318 current student-athletes. Based on estimates announced by six of these schools, the cuts are expected to save at least $16.4 million.
“That’s a really heavy decision,” Akron athletic director Larry Williams told the Missourian. “And heavy in terms of the amount of time and attention and emotional energy that goes into evaluating what your capabilities are.”
Last week, Sterk said over Zoom that no MU sports are “on the chopping block.” He echoed that statement Thursday, saying that right now it isn’t something he’s looking to do. However, much of the uncertainty of the times still lingers.
“But you never know down the road,” Sterk said. “If all our sports are canceled, who knows what occurs?”
It’s an odd question but it’s not illogical considering the circumstances: Could Missouri — a Power 5, SEC athletics program — cut a sport?
Considering the state of Missouri’s athletic department finances over the last few years and more recent university-mandated, pandemic-related budget cuts, it seems like a discussion to be had.
According to previous Missourian reporting, the athletic department was already expecting a financial hit to this fiscal year’s budget after sanctions levied by the NCAA in January. Now, the department that has operated in the red for the last three years also has to cut 12.5% of its budget both for the rest of this fiscal year and all of next.
For now, the department will look at operations, travel and salaries for its cuts, according to Sterk, and furloughs, layoffs and terminations likely will happen at some point.
“We’re looking at ‘How do we move forward and maintain the core of what we need to do … and not impact, as much as we can, the student-athlete experience,’” he said.
The question of MU cutting a sport or sports is largely an “If” at the moment. For it to become a “When” depends on several factors.
How worse is the fallout without football?
Dr. Bryan Maggard, athletic director at Louisiana in Lafayette, said that if a football season were to not happen this year, circumstances could become dire.
“If that were to occur, then I think not just as an athletic department, but certainly as a university, we’d have to revamp our plans and come up with ways to begin to survive, because it’s going to come down to mere survival at that point,” he said.
The sport keeps the lights on for almost every athletic department across the country, including Missouri.
In 2019, football generated more revenue than any other MU sport, at about $38.4 million. The next closest was men’s basketball, which brought in about $25.8 million less. Football made up 71.9% of the department’s team-specific revenue, and 36.1% of its total revenue.
If football is played in the fiscal year 2020-21, MU likely won’t have to face the question. And though it remains to be seen if games will be played in front of fans in the stands, it’s likely football will happen at this point.
The NCAA lifted its moratorium on voluntary on-campus workouts for football this week, effective June 1, and the SEC voted Friday to permit voluntary on-campus athletic activities starting June 8 at the discretion of member schools. Missouri has already announced it will go ahead with that date.
However, if a second coronavirus wave slows or shuts down campus activities again, it could derail when, or if, football comes back. Sterk said a decision on the status of football games this fall likely won’t be made until mid-to-late July.
If MU loses either football or men’s basketball for a year, dropping a sport could turn from a last resort to a reality.
What’s the difference?
There are differences between MU and other schools that have already cut programs.
Perhaps most notably, half of the schools that have cut a sport were considering some form of a budget cut even before the pandemic.
Both Cincinnati and Old Dominion were already considering cutting their men’s soccer and wrestling programs, respectively. And a release from Furman stated it had been creating a long-term funding strategy, but the process was hastened due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Williams said Akron knew it had an “imbalance” in athletics, partially coinciding with a decade-long drop in the university’s enrollment, so the school was putting together a three-year contingency plan. Williams said it focused on revenue generation, and “would take the burden off the university, yet still give us the opportunity to continue the sports that we offered.”
“Well, COVID happened, and all of a sudden, all those plans, frankly, they go out the window,” he said. “So, the COVID pandemic has really accelerated all of those plans and we no longer have the runway.
“That runway has been carpet bombed, and so we had to adjust and change course.”
Williams said the original three-year plan did not include cutting any sports.
Although all eight of these athletic programs are in Division I, they’re all members of non-Power 5 conferences, which likely impacts finances.
“A school such as ours, we’re a lean operation, staying at the FBS level,” Williams said. “And so, it is a real challenge to continue to do the things we’re doing and compete at that level. (Power 5 schools) have the luxury of being able to generate more revenue, which allows them to do more things and give them more flexibility.”
Maggard noted that SEC schools might have additional revenue streams which may offset some expenses. Specifically, he noted SEC Network revenues and other TV contracts. In 2019, MU made about $38.2 million in media rights revenues.
Conferences also distribute revenue to members, and Power 5 schools generally find their sums more lucrative than others. For example, Missouri received just over $11 million in revenue from SEC distributions in 2019. In comparison, Louisiana received about $1.38 million from the Sun Belt.
How should cuts be made?
Even if some schools aren’t dropping a sport, almost every program across the nation is facing some form of budget cuts. And with the conversation ongoing about what to do in both the short and long term, the impetus to save money has intensified.
In April, Group of 5 Commissioners and the remaining 22 Division I conferences outside the Power 5 asked the NCAA to relax some membership requirements. The most noticeable request was a temporary reduction in how many sports an FBS program needs to sponsor to maintain its membership.
American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco told the Missourian those requests were about far more than cutting sports.
They included, he said, loosening attendance requirements; offering less financial aid in certain circumstances; allowing student-athletes to participate in summer activities without being enrolled in classes; the minimum number of contests played and minimum number of participants in some sports; along with certain scheduling issues.
“If you play a school that was reclassifying from maybe Division I to FCS or Division II to FCS, maybe you hadn’t qualified yet, but you could get credit for playing them, things of that nature,” he said. “And it was a little open-ended in terms of how many years.
“You might need a year, you might need two years, you might need a little longer to just review what we’re doing and help with some waivers to get everyone through this,” he added.
The NCAA said on April 24 that a waiver allowing schools to drop below the minimum 16-sport requirement would only be considered on a case-by-case basis, and that the other requests listed by those conferences would be considered in the coming weeks.
Budget cuts could lead to several changes in how departments do business, both on- and off-campus
“Do some of our coaches sit in educator roles?” Williams said. “Can they fill spots in a college where your coach might have an expertise, and they can teach some classes? Likewise, are there efficiencies going the other way, that maybe Dining Services can feed our teams in a more efficient manner?”
Both Sterk and Maggard noted travel as a key in saving money down the line. Sterk has mentioned the use of Zoom replacing in-person meetings and frequent recruiting visits as a money-saving positive. Maggard’s concerns are built around better regional scheduling, and even potential conference realignment.
“The amount of money that departments spend on travel for sports that don’t, in particular, generate any revenue, it’s absurd,” he said. “For me to put a soccer team on the plane and fly over a couple states that I can drive to for a match just doesn’t make sense.”
Maggard said there has been ongoing dialogue “on the national level, amongst conferences and ADs and commissioners,” addressing similar topics.
The pandemic has exposed the issue that athletic departments, which make millions annually, rarely have funds to help them through hard times.
“For the most part, we all live year-to-year,” Maggard said. “We’re not rolling in cash. We’re not depositing surpluses of money into those reserves, year in and year out. We’re probably making enough to survive. Maybe a little bit more in terms of revenue, but not much more than that.
“And I think that just kind of goes to support why — it makes it more obvious that — today’s business model for college athletics is not really sustainable.”