After three decades of steady growth in the number of teams and student-athletes, colleges and universities large and small, private and public, east and west, are slashing millions of dollars from their sports budgets.
Colleges have dismissed athletic staff, reduced hours for pools and practice courts, and increased equipment and facility fees. Some have also cut the size of their travel squads, eliminated trips requiring air travel and done away with housing teams in hotels the night before home games.
Institutions facing fat deficits have risked the wrath of students, parents and alumni and cut scholarships and teams. The University of Cincinnati wiped out scholarships for three men’s sports: track, cross-country and swimming. Stanford University told its fencing teams to look for other financing.
The University of Massachusetts dropped its ski teams, and Kutztown University in Pennsylvania eliminated its men’s soccer and men’s swimming teams. On Friday, the University of Washington said it would cut its swimming teams to save as much as $1.2 million, less than half of the spending that the athletic department needs to reduce.
“We just couldn’t make cuts across the board anymore,” said Blake James, the athletic director at the University of Maine, explaining why his department cut its men’s soccer and women’s volleyball programs. “We were bleeding our programs to death.”
Even the wealthiest universities are pinched. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced it was cutting eight teams — Alpine skiing, competitive pistol, golf, wrestling and men’s and women’s ice hockey and gymnastics — as a way to trim $1.5 million from its athletic budget.
Taken together, the cuts could deeply alter the college sports landscape. The gap will widen between the haves with television and sponsorship deals, and the have-nots that rely mostly on alumni and their universities for financing.
“One of the things we have to worry about is competitive equity,” said Myles Brand, the president of the NCAA. “If some schools have too small a budget, it could affect their play, and that isn’t fair.”
Programs that disappear are unlikely to return, particularly in Olympic sports like gymnastics and swimming. That could lead to less diversity on campuses and weaken the country’s prowess at international events.
“It may take a couple of years to shake out,” said Robert Bowlsby, the director of athletics at Stanford, which cut $1.8 million from its athletic budget this year and plans to save $3 million next year and $4.5 million in 2011. “Once programs go away, they seldom come back. And if they do, they take many years to start again because all the remaining athletes are off campus and the money gets used for something else.”
College sports have grown steadily during the past three decades thanks to Title IX, which provided equal opportunity in men’s and women’s sports. An increase in television and sponsorship dollars and growing pressure from alumni to spend more on athletics have fueled a surge in sports programs, too.
According to NCAA figures, a record 17,682 college teams competed in the 2007-8 academic year, 60 percent more than in 1981-82. During that time, the number of student-athletes grew 78 percent, to a record 412,768.
The number of women’s teams has increased drastically, particularly in sports like lacrosse and soccer, thanks partly to growth in the number of youth leagues. The number of men’s teams has also risen, though more modestly.
Sports like fencing, gymnastics and wrestling have gradually disappeared on campuses, overshadowed by more prominent baseball, basketball and football teams.
Yet only twice in the past two decades — in 1988-89 and 1997-98 — has there been a net decline in the number of men’s and women’s athletic programs nationally.
The growth in college athletics has made it harder to cut back during lean times because of resistance from students — especially those with athletic scholarships — their parents, alumni, sponsors and civic boosters.
“There’s great pressure on schools to win,” said John Cheslock, who teaches at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. “If I’m an athletic director and I drop a sport, I’m going to have everyone who plays the sport angry at me, as well as parents and former athletes and donors.”
Though official figures are not yet available, Brand said he expected the number of athletic programs to shrink about 1 percent this year, or by about 130 teams.
“We’ve seen some sports close because of financial reasons in the past, but that was spotty,” he said. “This is the worst I’ve seen it.”
He said he did not have a forecast for the 2009-10 academic year.
There are, to be sure, sacred cows. At many universities, football and basketball bring in more money than they spend, because of strong support from alumni, ticket sales and television and sponsorship revenue.
Some programs are so wealthy that they subsidize entire athletic departments. In the 2007-8 season, the Southeastern Conference distributed an average of $5.3 million in football and basketball television revenue to each of its 12 members. In August, the SEC signed 15-year television contracts with ESPN and CBS that will generate even more money.
Last week, the Arkansas athletic department said it would spend $1 million to help the university avoid increasing tuition. In December, the athletic department at South Carolina agreed to steer $1 million of its television revenue back to the university.
“There’s no doubt that most if not all our institutions are experiencing budget issues with their state legislatures,” said Mike Slive, the commissioner of the SEC. “To the extent that our athletic departments can assist, they’ve done that.”
Because many tickets to SEC football games for the coming season were sold before the downturn, universities may not feel the effect of the recession for another six or eight months, Slive said.
The Ohio Valley Conference, which includes 11 universities in Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee, is not so fortunate. It reduced the number of teams that play in conference championship tournaments to six, eliminated media days before the football and basketball seasons (instead conducting news conferences online), and stopped printing media guides.
“We were doing cost containment before cost containment was cool,” said Jon A. Steinbrecher, the conference commissioner until last week, when he took over as the head of the Mid-American Conference. “It’s not huge dollars, but by the time you eliminate two media days and print media guides, you’re talking $25,000 to $40,000 in savings.”
Teams in the conference are taking buses on longer trips to avoid flying, and staying overnight less often.
At Lehigh, which has 25 varsity sports and competes in the Patriot League, athletes on the volleyball, field hockey and soccer teams will return to campus only a few days before dormitories open, instead of a full week. The change will save the athletic department about $20,000 in room and board.
Joe Sterrett, Lehigh’s athletic director, trimmed $250,000 from his budget. He said he was also concerned about a potential decline in the number of athletes who attend the university’s sports camps, which bring in as much as $900,000 each summer.
“You have to look for ways to squeeze,” he said.