Big sports have always been the big man on campus, but the coronavirus pandemic could eventually leave them as the only collegiate games still playing.
It all comes down to money.
College football and basketball programs generate revenue, while just about everything else does not. So, when the spigot runs dry, funding does not trickle down.
In March, the NCAA canceled all winter and spring sports and if football does not return this fall, athletic departments will have no choice but to start cutting programs.
George Mason University athletic director Brad Edwards said they’ll feel the hit with the cancellation of the Atlantic 10 and NCAA basketball tournaments.
“We’ve been working on a lot of belt tightening in the conference office and how we can reduce expenses, use some of our other funds to supplement to the degree that we can.” Edwards said.
Edwards believes it’s going to be a multiyear hit.
However, in just two months, Furman University discontinued its baseball and men’s lacrosse programs, the University of Akron is pulling the plug on men’s golf, women’s tennis and men’s cross country, the University of Alabama in Huntsville cut hockey and all tennis, the University of Cincinnati eliminated men’s soccer, wrestling is over at Old Dominion University, Bowling Green State University has thrown out baseball, Central Michigan University terminated men’s track and field, there’s no more tennis at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, while Florida International University trimmed men’s indoor track and field.
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Edwards saw how it affected his athletes when their seasons came to an abrupt end in March.
“Some of our women’s teams, lacrosse and softball and others, they were in tears. It literally tore me up, it really shook me.” Edwards said.
Edwards said student-athletes understand the pandemic is much bigger than sports, but they put a lot of work and effort to get to this point in their college careers.
“For some of those sports, there is nowhere else to go after this level.” Edwards said.
University of Maryland men’s lacrosse coach John Tillman is especially concerned with Furman dropping lacrosse.
He told WTOP’s Dave Preston: “We’re hoping that the fallout isn’t bad and people can hang in there, but you are worried about that because we want our game to expand and not get smaller.”
However, that could happen because schools aren’t all that anxious to start up sports if their campuses are not open for all students.
Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis told ESPN that the upcoming football season will be played, even if it’s during the spring, because of “astronomical financial implications” for athletic departments if it’s canceled.
Most athletic departments were already not profitable before the coronavirus pandemic and many don’t have financial reserves in a study done by LEAD1, an association of athletic directors from 130 Division 1 football schools.
Navy opens its football season on Aug. 29 with a big money event in Ireland against Notre Dame.
The Naval Academy should be immune to budget cuts, but coach Ken Niumatalolo said they felt the effects on the field with the cancellation of spring practice and the spring game.
“It’s a big part of what we do. You start to build your culture. You kind of get to see the work ethic, camaraderie and toughness of the group,” Niumatalolo said.
Navy and Notre Dame are two exceptions, but college sports may have to become more regionalized to save money.
Conferences are now spread out all over the country and air travel has become the norm.
To save money, athletes may have to get back on the bus.
University of Maryland coach Cathy Reese didn’t get to defend the Terrapin women’s lacrosse national championship in 2020.
She was coming off her fourth title in six years, and yet she knows programs like hers depend on the big sports.
“If we don’t have college football in the fall, we’re already going off not having the NCAA Tournament and conference tournaments in basketball. There are more hits then we probably even realize nationwide.” Reese said in an interview with WTOP’s Dave Preston.
Canceling the NCAA men’s basketball tournament meant there was nearly $400 million dollars less to distribute to schools.
So, Reese believes it will be a nationwide challenge.
“It’s something obviously no one wants to see. No one wants to see sports cut, no one wants to see these athletes lose their opportunities that they have to compete collegiately, and coaches and programs lose jobs. We’re hanging on to the hope that we’re going to figure this out, get through it and push forward. It will definitely be different in different times.”
Division 1 schools are required to carry at least 16 athletic programs. Five conferences requested NCAA President Mark Emmert relax that regulation.
However, it is not being considered by the NCAA Division 1 Council — at least for now.
But for George Mason University basketball coach Dave Paulsen, one thing is certain: “I’m never gonna take for granted just the privilege I have of doing a job I love with kids I love being around.”