NCAA vote may cripple non-revenue sports
The NCAA Board of Directors’ vote last Thursday to move ahead with plans to allow its five wealthiest athletic conferences to make their own rules was, at its heart, a declaration:
The big boys are too good, and move too much merchandise, to continue being held back by the also-rans.
But if that vote was the acknowledgement that major college sports are, in fact, very big business, it raises a vexing problem: What becomes of the college sports that aren’t very big business?
“There are financial pressures already at play absent (last week’s) ruling,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon: “Post-ruling, there are going to be a lot of schools saying, ‘How can we justify carrying these things forward?’ ”
Minnesota baseball coach John Anderson concurs. He sees the NCAA ready to commit more resources to football when most athletic departments already struggle to stay in the black. Even for schools in the Big Ten, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — the so-called Power 5 conferences in line for autonomy — maintaining a large roster of varsity sports will be difficult.
“Any (baseball) team in the northern half of the country has to feel threatened,” he said.
If the NCAA’s 351 Division I schools don’t vote to override the board’s decision, the Power 5 will begin work on new rules that would make scholarships equal what they’re calling “the full cost of attendance,” a euphemism for stipends, expanded medical coverage for athletes and the ability to pay transportation costs for family members to attend games.
“That money is going to have to come from someplace,” Anderson said Monday. “We’re not an athletic department, here at Minnesota, that’s flush with cash. In our own particular case, how are we going to attack that problem?”
Minnesota athletic department spokesman Chris Werle said there are no current plans to make changes based on last week’s NCAA vote.
“We continually review our financial model to best manage expenses and generate revenue allowing us to remain a self-sustaining athletics department,” he said in a statement. “We will address any changes based on the new governance structure as we move forward and we are excited about having the ability to focus intently on the well-being of our student-athletes.”
The Big Ten and its Power 5 brethren have the benefit of a new revenue stream, the College Football Playoff, a four-team, bowl-friendly postseason that starts in January and will net each of the conferences at least $50 million. That generally has been good news for non-revenue sports such as baseball, gymnastics, golf and swimming, which traditionally have relied on football to pay the bills.
It seems clear that how much of that new money will go toward additional scholarship, medical and nutritional aid — already enacted by the NCAA — will determine the future of some college sports programs.
“I think there are potential risks to non-revenue sports,” Swangard said. “In my classes, when we talk about this, we always start with the fact that if you ran an athletic department like a business, it wouldn’t make much sense to have aspects of that business that don’t make money siphoning money from pieces that do.”
It’s an old story for John Roethlisberger, the former Minnesota gymnast who represented the U.S. in three Olympic Games.
“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Hey, there has to be a men’s gymnastics program,’ and blast the NCAA because there isn’t an opportunity for a wrestler or a swimmer or a gymnast,” said Roethlisberger, who owns a gymnastics camp near Nashville, Tenn. “But I will say it’s time for the NCAA to look in the mirror and say, ‘What is our purpose? Are we here to provide opportunities for people for every shape and size of athlete? What’s our mission?’
“It’s becoming clear, it’s not to create a wide variety of sports opportunities for a wide variety of human beings. Let’s look in the mirror and call it what it is.”
Minnesota has one of 16 extant men’s gymnastics programs, but only because the school raised nearly $3 million in 2002-03 to save that program, as well as men’s and women’s golf. More than $650,000 of that was raised during a three-hour telethon.
Supporting those programs is a matter of mission and, Swangard noted, “there is a clear mission for collegiate athletics to provide opportunities that don’t necessarily make business sense.”
According to the NCAA, rules adopted by the Power 5 schools would be “elective,” meaning other schools could, but don’t have to, follow them. That raises a big question for the mid-major football conferences — the American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt. They’re in line to share $75 million in football playoff money. If dispersed equally, that would be $15 million to each conference ... or $35 million less than the Power 5 conferences.
“You’ll see that schools will have to re-assess: ‘What market do we really compete in? What are our realistic streams of revenue?’ and then make decisions based on that,” Swangard said.
Rather than cut sports, Swangard said, schools could change the model for some non-revenue programs, pulling them out of conference play for a more local or regional schedule.
“I think as we move forward, you’re going to see a lot of creativity brought to bear,” he said.
Roethlisberger is less sanguine about the future.
“I’d be shocked if non-revenue sports continue, or how it’s even conceivably possible assuming football and basketball get full cost-of-attendance (scholarships),” he said. “Again, I’m not saying it’s wrong, but let’s be honest about it.”