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Recession vs. College Athletics -- Game Over?

4 years ago
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When sophomore swimmer Sarah Boyd entered the sports center at Dickinson College last November to prepare for competition, her warm-up routine lacked a few familiar steps. She didn't have to check for her race on heat sheets or for familiar faces in the stands. No buses were parked outside the athletic facility, and no visiting opponents awaited her. That night Dickinson would be competing against Bryn Mawr College in a "virtual swim meet." Each team would swim in its home pool, then compare the athletes' performances after to determine the winners.

Dickinson, in central Pennsylvania, ended up saving $900 in bus fare, though Boyd said the virtual meet was held mostly due to stormy weather. According to Boyd, neither team wanted to reschedule, so they opted for a two-time-trials-and-a-camera hybrid meet.

"Basically it was just a meet where you swam your time," Boyd said when reached by phone. She admitted it wasn't exactly the same. "I mean normally, there would be double the amount of people. I guess there wasn't as much pressure, and we were in our home pool."

Venturing into the virtual world is one of many ways that college athletics departments are making recession-induced cuts that are changing their sports in deep and lasting ways.

For instance, the University of Central Florida has purged six jobs in the athletics department and cut employee benefits after watching the Athletics Association's fundraising drop 20 percent over the past year. It is facing a four percent decline in total football revenue that could mean more than $200,000 in losses this year.

Similarly, Louisiana recently cut all financial support to University of New Orleans athletics, leaving the school to generate income from student athletic fees, among other things. Many universities have increased student fees to generate additional revenue. New athletics fees have been quite popular with schools, if not with students. But according to The New York Times, students are questioning their role in propping up sports teams. The fees could mean decreased support and do long-term damage to morale.

Cuts are reverberating through collegiate communities at all levels. In February, Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., eliminated its football program, prompting alumni and former players to create a Web site dedicated to saving it. However, an article on the Vikings' own home site claims that reinstatement "is not going to happen anytime soon or in the foreseeable future." Now, only four Division-II football programs remain on the West Coast.

Mike Cleary, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics for nearly 45 years, sees more cuts on the horizon. "Schools across the country might look at that and say, 'Whoa! A million bucks? How much does our band cost?'" said Cleary. "When that gets out, others of their size may say, 'There's a quick million.'"

He added, "You hate to see any program cut." At the same time, athletic programs have to be realistic. ""These are different times. I'm 75 years old and it's never been like this. It's an entirely different lifestyle now and people just have to adjust."

That could mean fewer hotels stays, more brown-bag lunches, and cutbacks on per diems. And the adjustments are more likely to affect smaller schools, too. "These things have been going on in Division III for a hundred years," said Cleary. "They're used to that stuff. They're not pampered like you guys up at Division I," he said, referencing my two years with the Notre Dame women's track team.

Division I is certainly feeling the pinch now. The Pacific-10, a Division I conference in the western U.S., is considering asking the NCAA to place a nationwide ban on printed media guides, hotel stays the night before home events, and international team travel. The College Hockey News Network reported in March that the Bowling Green's hockey team, a Division-I program that includes a famed 1984 national championship, may be in jeopardy. Football powerhouse Florida State will only hold six home games in 2009 – two fewer than in 2008 -- as season ticket sales have fallen by nearly 12 percent. Florida International University will pare both its nationally ranked cheerleading squad and its marching band. Quinnipac will no longer have a men's indoor track program. Pepperdine won't have a men's track team at all.

Smaller community and junior college programs, proving grounds for many U.S. athletes, continue to contract as well. With revenue down in California, up to 20 percent of the games for all of the state's 103 community college athletic programs will be eliminated this coming school year, and travel will be limited. Los Angeles City College voted in early June to recommend suspending its athletic program. Many two-year schools nationwide have made similar cuts. New York's North Country Community College, where 14 percent of the student population plays sports, will likely eliminate men and women's hockey. North Iowa Area Community College won't have a football program this coming year.

Michael Cross, executive associate director of athletics at Princeton, tracks the cuts being made to college athletic budgets nationwide on his blog, Ultimate Sports Insider. Already he has 36 budget updates from schools highlighting their efforts to slim down through everything from layoffs and hiring freezes to sharing buses and minimizing travel parties. Meanwhile, the NCAA has waived dues for this year's members, saving Division I schools $1,800.

Schools say they are trying to make cuts that don't detract from the student-athlete experience. Even Cleary said a lot of the major cuts are "common sense cuts," and "nothing that's going to make anybody starve."

In California, that means colleges are freezing officials' pay and relocating state championship tournaments to on-campus sites. Basketball teams in the Big Sky Conference will play more games on back-to-back nights. More teams are looking to minimize road trips, opting to stay home and host non-conference competitions. These competitions may pad the wins column, but the decision sacrifices big-time exposure and opportunity for many athletes. Many are likely to ask: What is the college-athlete experience without the routine of team buses and competing in enemy territory on a consistent basis?

Coaches, athletic department officials and school boosters argue athletics play a significant part in the experience and morale of entire student populations. They say placing athletic programs on the chopping block stifles school spirit, and worse, threatens the livelihoods of schools that rely on athletic recognition for recruiting and fundraising.

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