Earlier this week, Furman University announced it was cutting its baseball and men’s lacrosse program, as well as 45 additional scholarships over the next four years. These cuts were made under the cover of COVID-19, along with other cost-saving measures like furloughs and salary reductions of the President and other senior administrators. They were just the most recent in a line of schools who are making cuts.
Furman, it appears, is in a particularly challenging situation because of how the University has grown and branded itself. As a small, private liberal arts school, it has created an idyllic college setting with a goal of being viewed in the same light as many of the great, small, private liberal arts schools in the country. It has many of those same qualities – picturesque campus, students living in dorms in their little utopian village, small classes and the giant tuition bill to match. It’s the perfect image of the college life.
Unfortunately, the fantasy land that they created all comes crashing down when you have to refund all those housing and tuition dollars, which admittedly, isn’t something anyone planned for. Ever. The budget doesn’t quite look right because your expenses don’t magically disappear along with the students.
At Furman, they don’t generate the revenue from athletics to begin to cover the costs, so the school is choosing to subsidize its athletic department. This is also true at just about every university in the country in some way, shape or form. The dirty little secret about Furman is that these types of cuts have been rumored for several months, as sources tell us it was discovered during their AD search last summer. It would appear the current President has been looking at the university’s budget and doesn’t believe what is being spent on Athletics is worth the investment. You know those small, private, liberal arts schools they were trying to emulate? Yeah, they are basically all either Division III schools, or they are Stanford, Duke, Wake Forest and Vanderbilt. Want to know why you know the names of the last four schools we listed and not the Division III schools? Sports.
Furman isn’t alone in this decision, as a handful of other schools have announced they were cutting sports, too. And more are bound to come. We don’t want to minimize the impact of COVID-19, but at this point, if you’d made the decision to cut a sport, you were headed down that path long before the Coronavirus invaded our lives. Cincinnati announced it would be eliminating men’s soccer program on April 14 after a “comprehensive review of UC’s sport offerings and long-term budget implications.” Ironically, in the sentence before that quote, their AD talks about “widespread uncertainty”. So, we have widespread uncertainty, but we know that cutting our soccer program will be the solution? Nice try, fella. That soccer program was on the chopping block long before the COVID-19 pandemic was even twinkle in our eye.
East Carolina published a report this week looking at the financial sustainability of their athletic department. Quick summary: it’s a dumpster fire. And while they will be cutting sports, they at least had the stones to admit that it was bad long before the global pandemic struck. ECU is similar to many of the schools in the MAC that have announced cuts (Bowling Green, Akron, Central Michigan). They actually went so far over their skis chasing football glory and failed. Now, they are cutting sports like men’s indoor track, baseball, golf and cross country.
Look, the financial impact of the Coronavirus for universities and athletic departments is going to be severe, and no one will be spared from having to make hard decisions. What this ultimately reflects is that if you look at any athletic department from a purely financial lens, you’ll see a deeply flawed financial model. Without going too far in the weeds here, a Division I athletic department has somewhere between 16 and 30 programs it sponsors. If they are fortunate, two of those programs generate enough money to cover their own expenses. It doesn’t take a Wall Street genius to figure out that doesn’t work, if looked at strictly as a business enterprise.
However, some would argue rather convincingly that athletics is more valuable to the educational mission of a University than just the amount of revenue it generates. Using our previous examples, we’re guessing that Stanford, Duke, Wake Forest and Vanderbilt would argue that it does. Some would argue that the students who participate in athletics bring much needed diversity to a campus. Some would also argue that non-revenue sports with large rosters bring much needed tuition dollars, as most of those students are not receiving full scholarships. And finally, some would argue that the students who participate in athletics are also some of the most dedicated and best-performing students on their campus. For example, at one mid-major university in Southeast Tennessee, the graduation rate of student-athletes is 87%. The rest of the student body? Below 50%.
Ultimately, every school will be facing really difficult decisions as it relates to their budget. And yes, some schools will eventually make the decision to cut sports and it will be as a result of the financial impact of coronavirus. And that sucks. However, to make that decision right now is not solely because of the financial impact of coronavirus. It’s because you’ve made decisions in the past that didn’t work out. It’s because you were poor stewards of the resources you were provided. Just own it and try to fix it moving forward.
But, hey, if you think using coronavirus as a cover for why you chose to eliminate a sport will help ease the pain and frustration to the students, coaches and alums will feel, you’ll be wrong. Just ask a Furman baseball alum.
And with that, we will step down from our soap box.