Ivy Sports in Retreat
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, universities across the country have dropped varsity sports teams at an unprecedented rate.
At the Division I level, cuts began to be announced in early April. Facing declining enrollments, universities like Old Dominion and Akron decided to permanently shutter select sports, citing pandemic-related economic strains. The University of Cincinnati, Furman, Central Michigan, and East Carolina—among many others—followed.
And then a different group of schools, with multi-billion-dollar endowments, did the same. Brown moved first, dropping 11 varsity sports to club level while adding women’s and co-ed sailing to its varsity roster. (Men’s indoor and outdoor track and field and cross country, which comprised three of the 11 cut teams, were later reinstated. The women’s equivalents were never cut.) Stanford—an athletics powerhouse, and the most formidable sports presence among the leading private research universities—later dropped 11, and Dartmouth dumped five.
According to experts interviewed, the trend will likely continue—both within and outside the Ivy League. “I wish I was wrong on this,” said David Ridpath, associate professor of sports management at Ohio University, “but I do think it’s going to continue.” Andrew Zimbalist, Ph.D. ’74, professor of economics at Smith College, who has consulted extensively in the sports industry, agreed: “I think you’re going to see much deeper cuts going forward.”
Though the common theme of athletic programs is cutting, the rationales vary. Zimbalist explained that even at the country’s highest-revenue athletic programs, most departments spend far more than they earn. “They don’t have cost discipline,” he explains. “What they’re trying to do is win games, and they’re doing it almost regardless of cost.” It means that of more than 300 universities which participate in Division I athletics, only 29 athletic departments generated profits—a calculation that excludes capital expenses, he said. Factoring in expenses to build stadiums and improve facilities, he continued, “What you have is five, six, seven programs a year running a true surplus.”
The financial strains imposed by the pandemic have put many of these high-budget programs under increased scrutiny. “COVID is ripping the band-aid off how they are being funded,” said Donna Lopiano, president of the Sports Management Resources consulting firm and former director of women’s athletics at the University of Texas at Austin. “The public and faculty say, ‘I thought they made the money [and] that’s why we’re doing this. They’re not making money? Who is this money coming from?’”
At most large public schools with prominent football programs in the leading athletic conferences, the problems are especially acute. Programs used to earning millions in TV revenue will receive little of that money, and games are unlikely to be played with paying fans in attendance, if they are played at all. “If you’re an athletic director and all of a sudden you see $60 million to $130 million disappearing, what do you do?” asks Zimbalist. “Your first instinct would be to call the college president and say we need more subsidies. But guess what? Colleges are suffering as much, if not more, than the athletic department because their students aren’t coming back, they’re not getting donations the way they’re accustomed to getting, and their endowment has taken a big hit in the stock market….The next recourse is to go to the state government, but they’re in worse shape.”
Ivy League schools are shielded from many factors plaguing other schools, explains Russell Wright, managing director of Collegiate Consulting. They don’t offer athletic scholarships, most of their head coaching positions and locker rooms are endowed, and their athletic endowments are higher than those at most Division I universities. But they are looking at athletics in a new light, too. “With the Ivies, I don’t believe it’s financial,” Wright says. “I think it’s looking at, ‘Do these sports fit?’”
Brown president Christina Paxson noted that her university’s initiative was not meant to reduce the athletic department’s budget, but rather to “invest further in advancing excellence in Brown’s full lineup of sports programs” and comply with a 1992 federal lawsuit, Cohen v. Brown, and federal Title IX regulations that require gender equity in athletics. The university will continue to recruit the same number of varsity athletes. Dartmouth said its cuts will help address a $150-million financial deficit, but added that the changes also allow more flexibility in admissions by reducing the number of recruited athletes in incoming classes by 10 percent.
“I definitely think we’re in a ‘Don’t let a good crisis go to waste’ mode,” says sports economist Andy Schwarz of the economic consulting firm OSKR, who believes these schools are not forced by financial reasons to make deep cuts. “We’re going to have a weird year anyway. There’s a level of weirdness beyond which additional weirdness doesn’t really change the effect of the environment. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s nobody on campus and the ski team is gone.’”
Universities like Akron and Old Dominion, which generate significantly less sports-related revenue—and revenue overall—than wealthier peers in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (Ohio State, Alabama), have different considerations than the Ivy League does. And in many cases, Schwarz argues, they’re making a financial mistake by cutting programs that bring more paying students to campus. But in the Ivy League and at other wealthy universities like Stanford, where he believes most athletic benefits to the University are non-pecuniary, Schwarz says cuts have more to do with preferences for who gets into the school. “I don’t think Dartmouth, or Brown, or Stanford needed to cut the sports if they felt they were generating benefits,” he says. It’s more a matter of deciding, for example, whether the university would rather accept 10 robotics enthusiasts or 10 golfers. Sports like golf, skiing, squash, and equestrian (all cut by Brown), which don’t seem to add racial or economic diversity to the student body, are increasingly likely to be dropped.
Whether the Ivies are being fully transparent about the reasons for paring their roster of teams, the cuts are unlikely to stop. “I think that when you have one school that is willing to step out…it gives permission to the other schools to do it,” Zimbalist says. “But hopefully they do it in a more gradual and sensitive way.”
Stanford, Brown, and Dartmouth, which began the year with 36, 38, and 35 teams respectively, each suggested that their number of sponsored teams was onerous to maintain. “The financial model supporting 36 varsity sports is not sustainable,” a statement from Stanford said. The average Division I school has 19 varsity teams; Harvard sponsors 42—the most in Division I—and about 1,200 student athletes. In coming years, experts wouldn’t be surprised to see the number drop. (Erin McDermott, Nichols Family Director of Athletics, who came to that position July 1, did not respond to a request for comment.)
“That’s an incredible number of sports to sponsor,” says Zimbalist. “It makes sense in this day and age that colleges would look to retrench across the board. And there’s no reason in my view that athletics should be exempt from that.”