Unless runaway spending is brought under control, according to financial data and those who study them, it’s only a matter of time before other schools are forced to follow Maryland’s lead.
Over the last five years, 205 varsity teams have been dropped in NCAA Division I, the top ranks of college sports — 133 for men, 72 for women. Men’s tennis, gymnastics and wrestling have been hit particularly hard. Rutgers cut six sports in 2007 to address a multimillion-dollar deficit. Brigham Young, Clemson, Washington and UCLA have also pared offerings. And cash-strapped California Berkeley announced in 2010 it was cutting five sports because of budget problems, before an aggressive fundraising blitz spared the teams.
No major university has cut as deeply as Maryland, however, and some point to its budget woes as a warning that the current model of college sports, marked by overzealous spending in pursuit of success in football and men’s basketball, is broken.
“Quite frankly, I think we’ve gotten ourselves in a terrible situation with intercollegiate athletics, with the cost of running a program really out of proportion to the basic purpose of our universities,” said William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and a co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
Added John Nichols, co-chairman of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, the leading faculty voice on the issue: “What seems to be happening all too often nationwide is that the breadth and depth of athletic departments are being cut. It’s becoming the victim of a financial need to feed this commercial beast.”
Texas, Ohio State and a handful of other universities aren’t feeling the pain. That’s because their football teams are so wildly successful they bankroll their entire athletics department — and more.
But that’s the exception. According to USA Today’s most recent annual survey of sports spending, culled from data supplied to the NCAA, just 22 of 227 public universities in NCAA Division I turned a profit in 2011. The rest, like Maryland, lost money.
The perfect storm
There are several factors behind the escalating financial pressures. Spending on sports is rising at nearly twice the rate of spending on academics, according to the Knight Commission. Coaching salaries and construction costs are up dramatically, as football-playing schools, chasing the holy grail of a major bowl appearance, expand stadiums and lure big-name coaches capable of filling them. Scandal-plagued Ohio State in November, for example, guaranteed Urban Meyer a $4 million base salary.