Amid sports program cuts nationwide, local colleges played on during pandemic despite millions of dollars in losses

As college football stadiums, basketball arenas and hockey facilities sat idle during the coronavirus pandemic, Western Pennsylvania universities did not waver.

They continued to field their teams.

From Pitt and Penn State to Slippery Rock and Duquesne, local colleges bucked a nationwide trend of cutting athletic programs to offset crippling financial ramifications of the pandemic — in Penn State’s and West Virginia’s cases to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.

Only Robert Morris University in Moon Township eliminated teams — their successful men’s and women’s hockey programs. Administrators claimed the decision, announced in May, was not motivated by the pandemic. They since have partnered with an alumni and special-interest group to raise funds in hopes of returning to play in 2022-23.

Nationwide, 35 Division I colleges cut more than 110 programs, according to a tally maintained by Business of College Sports. Most were Olympic sports such as tennis, swimming and track and field, which cost a fraction of an athletic department’s budget to sponsor, leading some to question the motive of such cuts.

By October, 40 programs had been reinstated.

The insistence to play on did not come without sacrifices. The Tribune-Review learned:

• Penn State University, which relies on its powerhouse football program to fund the majority of its other varsity sports, faced a $73.5 million shortfall in 2020 in its athletic department. That forced everyone in the department — including football coach James Franklin, who was due to make $5.5 million in 2021 — to take a pay cut.

• West Virginia University athletics lost $23 million, furloughed more than 50 department employees for two months (they were later brought back) and permanently cut about a dozen staff positions. The university also depleted its emergency reserves, said Simon Dover, executive senior associate athletic director and chief financial officer for athletics.

• Slippery Rock, a member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, slashed its athletic department budget by 10% in conjunction with campuswide cuts.

• The University of Pittsburgh declined to offer financial specifics related to how the pandemic affected its athletic department. Athletic director Heather Lyke offered only that “revenues were significantly down … like every school in the country.” She said the department did not lay off or furlough any employees. A university spokesman said Lyke would have no further comment for this story.

Duquesne University spokesman Dave Saba declined to comment on this story, saying, “As a private institution, Duquesne isn’t obligated to provide the budget information you are seeking.”

He referred the Trib to the federal Equity in Athletics Data Analysis, which includes a snapshot of universities’ athletic department spending. Updated figures for the 2020-21 fiscal year will be released early next year.

Robert Morris spokesman Jonathan Potts also declined to comment.

“Everybody was impacted, but how much one was impacted depended on where one was sitting in the hierarchy (of college sports),” said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Massachusetts-based Smith College and an expert in sports economics.

Universities that compete in Power 5 conferences such as the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences, which command hundreds of millions of dollars in TV revenue, were better able to weather the pandemic than those that compete in smaller, lower-profile conferences. That’s because many of those Power 5 schools boast deep-pocketed donors and substantial reserve funds.

But those schools also were on the hook to lose the most.

• Like Penn State, fellow Big Ten member Ohio State projected a $107 million athletic department deficit in 2020-21 because of coronavirus and announced football coach Ryan Day would be among contract employees taking a 5% pay cut.

• The University of Florida, which plays in the Southeastern Conference, announced it experienced a $54.5 million shortfall in its athletic department in 2020.

• Florida State University, like the University of Pittsburgh a member of the ACC, reported it lost about $26 million in fiscal year 2020.

• Clemson University, another ACC member, announced last year it expected a $25 million shortfall in the athletic department.

Among those universities, only Clemson made program cuts, eliminating men’s track and field and men’s cross country to save about $2 million annually.

In April, Clemson reversed course, saying, while financial projections showed the impacts of covid, the virus “did not harm the university in as drastic a way as anticipated,” according to Sports Illustrated. ESPN reported the decision to reverse the cuts also was part of Title IX settlements.

Title IX is a federal law that requires schools to provide roughly equal sports opportunities for men and women.

The biggest shockwaves, however, were created by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Stanford University, which competes in the Pacific-12 Conference.

Stanford shocked the sporting world when it announced it was permanently dropping 11 sports after officials said its model was financially unsustainable, in part because of the pandemic, The New York Times reported last July. At the time, the university said it faced an expected $70 million shortfall.

By May, however, Stanford reversed course, citing “an improved financial picture with increased fundraising potential.” The decision came as a pair of lawsuits were filed against the school related to the cuts.

Football, basketball spared

Not surprisingly, money-making sports behemoths football and men’s basketball never were the sports cut, according to the tally by Business College Sports.

Men’s and women’s tennis accounted for the most programs eliminated with 15 and eight, respectively. Baseball and men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams were the next most. According to data compiled from the federal Equity in Athletics website, football and men’s basketball tend to generate the most revenue for schools.

However, nonrevenue sports such as tennis, swimming and track generally do not cost much to operate, so eliminating them as a cost-savings means doesn’t make much sense in a financial regard — unless there was a desire to recalibrate the focus of an athletic department, said John Clark, a professor of sport management at Robert Morris.

At Penn State, football and men’s basketball generated, on average, a combined net total of $52 million over the past five years, data show. However, in that same period, men’s tennis saw an average of $848,644 in expenses; women’s tennis saw an average of $886,996 in expenses; men’s combined track cost $1.68 million, while women’s combined track saw $1.95 million in expenses.

Similarly, at Pitt, football and men’s basketball generated a combined net average of $11.87 million over the past five years. In that same period, women’s tennis saw an average of $892,531 in expenses; men’s combined track cost $1.16 million and women’s combined track cost $1.42 million, according to Equity in Athletics data. Pitt dropped women’s tennis in 2019, blaming a lack of competitiveness.

“The cost-containment banter is music to a university president’s ears, and the big money boosters (at schools that have them) don’t mind as long as basketball and football (mainly) are not impacted,” Clark told the Trib.

He added that schools began announcing cuts in their athletic programs as a response to losing millions of dollars during the pandemic.

“The pandemic gave, in college administrators’ minds, perfect cover for accelerating the programmatic reposition,” Clark said. “When even the Power 5 schools were claiming losses of tens or hundreds of millions, the natural follow-up was cost-containing strategies.”

Zimbalist noted there are better ways to introduce cost-saving measures than cutting sports, including reducing the salaries of athletic directors or by reducing the amount of athletic department staff.

Clark agreed.

“In a school-by-school basis, if you look at the big schools, can Clemson afford to run their men’s and women’s track program? Yeah. Can Stanford? Yep. They have the endowment; they have the enrollment to do that,” he said. “I think it’s more of the university administrators deciding, ‘Hey, let’s kind of scale back our operating expenses in these areas, and this kind of streamlined version of an athletic program will then be better able to compete.’

“So you’re kind of left to trust the administrators, or take them at their word that, hey, this is the best move for athletic programs going forward.”

Still, decisions to cut sports across the country led to backlash from players, parents and alumni.

“I really believe that most administrators felt the public would be sympathetic to the financial plight of the schools and the cuts were being done reluctantly to provide the remaining athletes with the best possible experience,” Clark said.

That miscalculation, Clark said, led to public outcry that was amplified through traditional and social media that caused “a constant barrage of negative PR” and the threat of lawsuits alleging Title IX violations or other violations that would cost institutions millions of dollars to defend.

“What is interesting is that, for the bigger, wealthier (per endowment) schools, the decision to cut never really was about the finances, but they have leveraged the reinstatement of some of the programs with a fundraising campaign that reduces the athletic department’s financial obligation to those programs in the future,” Clark said.

That is the case at Robert Morris.

After the men’s and women’s hockey teams were eliminated in May, RMU hockey supporters and alumni banded together to form the Pittsburgh College Hockey Foundation. Its mission is to raise enough funds — estimated by university officials to be about $1.4 million for one season, with another $1.4 million in secured pledges — in an effort to save the programs.

The university announced in July it would work with the foundation to help raise funds, but in August it announced that both programs would remain on pause for at least a year until sufficient funds could be raised to bring back the teams for the long term.

The university estimated it needs about $7 million over the next five years to sustain both programs.

Data compiled from the Equity in Athletics site show, over the past five years, expenditures related to both hockey teams have exceeded $1 million. However, revenues brought in from the teams matched those of the expenses, meaning they broke even.

All other RMU teams also broke even over the past five years, data show.

The Trib left messages seeking comment from Robert Morris administrators, but they have gone unreturned.

Cutting never was an option

Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour has been in Stanford’s position.

She was athletic director at the University of California-Berkeley when four sports were eliminated in 2010, including baseball and men’s rugby, which had become what The New York Times called “particular points of pride.”

“I knew that was something that was not going to be our first line of defense, if you will, at Penn State,” Barbour told the Trib. “That experience (at Cal-Berkeley) certainly taught me a lot.”

Cutting sports isn’t a financial game-changer, Barbour said. Losses in tuition paid by walk-ons and players on partial scholarships outweigh cost savings, she said.

“My experience tells me that the math doesn’t add up,” Barbour said. “You don’t actually end up — given all the dynamics that occur around this — saving meaningful dollars. Therefore, why do it in the first place?”

There was a similar sentiment at Slippery Rock in Butler County.

The university does not offer full scholarships for athletics, so many athletes pay at least some tuition — there are 141 currently who have their cost to attend college completely covered by partial scholarships, grants and other aid, said Jon Holtz, athletic department spokesman.

To help offset a decline in state money and a drop of about $425,000 from student activity fee money, the athletic department reallocated resources. It reassigned full-time trainers to aid student-athletes who tested positive for covid-19 and help with other aspects of the medical response. It also furloughed two temporary trainers.

Despite spending more than $1 million on covid tests for athletes, coaches and staff — covered in part by federal funds — and using between $250,000 and $300,000 from reserve funds to pay for scholarships, Slippery Rock avoided catastrophe, said David Wilmes, the school’s chief student affairs officer.

“The good news is we are not dependent on athletics to run the rest of our business,” he said.

Dover, at WVU, said cutting programs was never seriously considered.

“To say that it wasn’t talked about would be a lie because it was happening around us all over the country,” he said. “But it wasn’t one of the things we entertained with much regard.

“It wasn’t the short- or long-term solution.”

Dover said the university’s $90 million pre-covid athletic budget likely will be cut to about $80 million for fiscal year 2021-22.

Big business

Football often helps fund large universities’ athletic departments, allowing for nonrevenue sports such as tennis and track and field to continue to play. At other schools, men’s basketball pulls in tens of millions of dollars.

ESPN/ABC alone paid $788 million to broadcast college football games in 2020 and will pay $868 million this fall, Forbes reported. That number rises to $1.1 billion by 2025. Fox doled out $496 million last year and is on the hook for another $521 million this season. CBS pays another $95 million this year after $90 million last year.

Conferences get a significant cut of that money — from $116 million for the Pac-12 to $194 million for the Big Ten this season — which they then share with their member schools, according to Forbes.

Furthermore, among the Power 5 schools, many have stadiums that seat more fans than NFL stadiums. Penn State’s Beaver Stadium and the University of Michigan’s Michigan Stadium — the so-called “Big House” — each seat about 107,000. Ohio State’s Ohio Stadium holds about 105,000. The University of Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium seats about 103,000.

By comparison, Heinz Field in Pittsburgh has a capacity of 68,400.

In short, college football is big business — to the tune of $4 billion annually for the 65 colleges that comprise the Power 5 conferences, Fortune reported, citing data from Patrick Rishe, the director of sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis.

During the 2019 season, Penn State’s football team pulled more than $101.79 million in gross revenue, including $37.6 million in ticket sales, an NCAA finance report shows. According to the report, even with the school’s football team having $48.8 million in expenditures in 2020, there still was a surplus of $53 million.

Yet the university still needed to tap into all but $2 million of its $27 million reserve fund that had been slated for capital projects.

“I’d rather be doing that with it than plugging a hole in a revenue shortfall,” Barbour said, “but thank goodness we have them.”

Penn State also appealed to its fan base under the ongoing One Team initiative to address shortfalls. University officials said $19.4 million has been raised.

Dover said West Virginia brass essentially gave the athletic department a loan — $23 million — to get through the pandemic.

“It wasn’t a negotiation (over terms of the loan) as much as it was a partnership,” he said. “The alternative was to say to athletics, ‘Completely stop what you’re doing.’ And we didn’t do that.”

Future of college athletics

In the wake of nationwide athletic program cuts, what is missing from the conversation is the discussion of what college athletics should look like going forward, Clark said.

“The amateur ideal has long since exited college sport despite the NCAA’s adherence to that standard,” Clark said. “That seems to leave college athletic departments explicitly in the realm of major/minor league sport, which is what I think a lot of Power 5 (athletic directors) believe and led to the attempt to cut programs.”

Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University, said the pandemic highlighted issues such as amateurism and the role of football within intercollegiate athletics. The past year helped spark conversations about what the model of intercollegiate athletics could look like in the future, she said.

Those conversations, Jackson said, could center around how long teams are on the road, meaning players are missing classes for large chunks of time. Those conversations also could include discussing teams playing closer to home while prioritizing academics rather than sports.

“I think this kind of rejiggering or this kind of existential crisis is a good opportunity,” Jackson said, “to really think hard about sports serving students and what students are getting out of sports rather than anxieties of an athletic department and its overall budget health, that the big time did get too big for all athletes in college sports.”

Christin Hakim

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