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A Plan to Save College Sports, While We Still Can

by on September 01, 2020 5:00 AM

These recent headlines have shaken the college athletics world to its core:

Heartbreaking day’ — Stanford drops 11 sports to cut costs

Why Michigan athletics' budget woes should alarm the rest of college sports

Brown University drops 11 varsity sports, adds 2

You know things are serious when Stanford, winner of the College Directors’ Cup for 25 consecutive years as the top NCAA college sports program, drops sports programs. Over 200 varsity teams have already been dropped around the country and the reality is that more are likely to follow.

This is as real as it gets sports fans. We are in the midst of the greatest health and financial crisis most of us have ever seen. When some colleges and universities are faced with the real possibility of shutting down completely, saving athletic programs suddenly isn’t very high on their list of priorities. Even the Power Five conference schools are facing massive financial dilemmas.  

“If ever there was a time to apply creative problem-solving and new approaches for managing, teaming, communicating and innovating, this is it.”  - Art Petty, author of Leadership Caffeine 

I am a firm believer in the value of sports, but I am also a “Pragmatic Passioneer.” Since I have spent my entire career in college, professional and youth sports, I believe that we have the opportunity to put sports back in proper perspective after decades of excess and an unsustainable arms race. The “Great Reset” in sports has been long overdue. We have simply lost our way and we needed to get back to a more commonsense approach, but no one has had the courage to lead the way. Instead we built lazy rivers and laser tag rooms in football complexes (as if that has a lot to do with a college education). 

“A rapidly expanding arms race in college sports should be over.  And that needed to happen, frankly,” SEC sports columnist Gary Estes wrote in a June 30 piece in The Tennessean. “Spending by colleges in major conferences – especially in football and most prominently in the SEC – had spiraled out of control over the past decade. Public institutions were burning exceedingly ridiculous amounts on coaches’ salaries and buyouts, stadiums, recruiting efforts and facility upgrades with over-the-top bells and whistles, all to outdo opponents and impress prospects.”

We all have to accept that we aren’t going back to “normal” anytime soon. This is precisely the time for courageous, creative, common-sense solutions. It calls for leaders to stop kicking the can down the road and to make pragmatic decisions now. While they still can.

All athletic departments, even at high schools, must make sacrifices. All school presidents and athletic directors must make difficult decisions.

Some in the athletic world who know me may call me a hypocrite given the role I played in securing the $88 million philanthropic gift from Terry and Kim Pegula to construct the Pegula Ice Arena and fund two varsity hockey teams at Penn State. I get it. However, anyone who follows college hockey knows this only occurred because of the Pegulas generosity and because Penn State men’s hockey is a revenue producer.

A.J. Maestas, the founder of Navigate Research sports analytics consulting firm, said, “If donors are unable to step up and endow the program or at least keep it above water there will be a number of programs that will be cut, especially if it’s a sustained economic downturn, which seems pretty realistic."

Athletic departments at the most high-profile football schools became too dependent on football revenues. The NCAA itself became too dependent on revenue from the men’s basketball tournament. Schools became overly dependent on sponsorship money and alumni donations. Keep in mind that the vast majority of NCAA athletics programs lose money and are heavily subsidized by funds from student fees. The economic model is simply flawed and unsustainable.

Even at financially self-sustaining programs that have broad-based athletic programs with over 25 varsity sports — like Stanford, Ohio State, and Penn State — you can only keep taxing your football fans for so long before the financial foundation begins to crumble and even collapse. And what if we start paying football and basketball players? Look out, the financial model now in place would likely implode.

Enough about how we got here; you get the picture. I don’t come here to criticize. I come to offer practical solutions. Let’s fix this going forward. We have a collective chance to “right the ship” before it’s too late.

How? In a word: Simplify.

1.  Reduce Overhead and Spending

Cut back on the number of administrators and support staff, adjust coaches’ and staff salaries to reflect the marketplace, and stop over-building facilities. There was a time when coaches were required to teach classes at many schools! With all due respect to my coaching colleagues, the salaries have gotten out of control. When the football coach makes five to 10 times what the president of the university makes, something is just plain worrisome.  

Schools don’t need to outfit everyone in swag head-to-toe, especially since sponsorship money is also likely to diminish. Check out this headline from USA Today: “Under Armour seeking to terminate $280 million apparel deal with UCLA.”

There is no rational budgetary reason to send non-revenue sports teams across the country to play regular season competition. In fact, it may be time for some schools to strongly consider conference realignment that is a better fit geographically. In the Big Ten, for instance, at a minimum, the member schools should be separated into east and west divisions for regular season play and non-conference opponents should be limited to bus travel as best as possible. Teams don’t need to travel to exotic locations for “recruiting purposes” either. That day may come again, but is certainly not right now. 

Michigan Athletic Director Ward Manuel outlined plans for reducing expenses in a letter to Wolverine fans:

  • Approximately $10.9M, or 28%, reduction in team and game expenses compared to previous years, primarily related to reductions in team travel, recruiting, supplemental nutrition, equipment and other team expenses

  • Approximately $3.8M, or 25%, reduction in operating expenses as compared to previous years, primarily due to reductions in administrative travel, professional development, and expenses associated with hosting home athletic events

  • Nearly $4M in department-wide salary reductions

  • Delaying all significant capital and construction projects

  • No contribution to facility deferred maintenance fund, initially budgeted for $6M

  • Year-long hiring freeze for non-essential positions

2. Implement a Tier System

All schools could avoid dropping sports if they would go back to the tier system that many had in place in the past. Each school selects 6-8 “core sports” that get fully funded and compete nationally. At most schools this would be football, men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball, along with their choice of sports that make the most sense based on spectators, geography, climate, tradition, etc. All other sports use the Division III model where financial aid is based on need or on academic merit. All non-core sports would play regional competition and only have a conference tournament at the end of the year.

I know this seems drastic, but it is better than the alternative of eliminating sports.

3. Team Sports and Club Sports Hybrid Approach. 

I would propose that schools do not need to drop varsity sports, but they may have to redefine how they are administered and funded.  How do I know this hybrid approach can work?  Because I lived it as a player and coach of the Penn State Icers club hockey team for decades.  

Pay the coaching staff a reasonable salary and tie their jobs into other responsibilities such as facility management, academic support, athletic fundraising and development, admissions, etc.  Assign medical, strength training and academic support resources across several sports.

At the state-owned schools in places like California and Pennsylvania, as well as mid-major conferences, it makes no sense to completely eliminate sports when most of the student-athletes pay full tuition and play their sports for the love of the game at these schools.  The same goes for NCAA Division II and III programs.

We are the only country in the world that currently uses colleges and universities to develop our Olympians, so obviously there are other ways to accomplish this goal especially now that athletes can get degrees remotely.  

Ralph Russo, AP college sportswriter, penned a worthwhile column about these possibilities:

“In his book, ‘Alternative Models of Sports Development in America,’ [former NCAA compliance director and Ohio University sports business professor David] Ridpath makes the case that the U.S. should move toward a European-style academy system. Elite young athletes develop their games and receive an education, but the two are not tethered the way they are in American colleges. 

“‘My argument has always been schools should not be a primary source of elite development,’ Ridpath said. ‘‘We need to have other models for those elite athletes to be taken care of. So, for me, it’s not throwing college athletics and high school athletics out the window. It’s reframing it and also making education-based sports more participatory.’”

Virtual classes won’t completely replace in-person learning but they will certainly change the dynamics of how people decide to invest in their education and that will impact the size of student bodies on campuses. To stay competitive in the admissions race, schools will need to find ways to improve all students’ access to recreational activities.

“The worst phrase in the language: We’ve always done it this way,” Rear Admiral Grace Hopper said. We have no choice but to improvise, adapt, and overcome. The game plan must change. Imagine if we are down by four touchdowns at halftime, or 20 points on the court, or 4-0 after the first period on the ice. The coach isn’t going to walk in and say, “Keep it up team, we are doing great!” Any good coach is going to make adjustments in personnel and in strategy. Well college sports are getting clobbered by COVID-19 and revenue shortfalls and they need to make “in-game” adjustments.

I am challenging my colleagues and friends inside and outside the college sports world to be more courageous and creative than you ever have been in the course of your careers, and help find realistic, long-term solutions. If you are a passionate alumnus who wants to help save a program, now is the time to step up. Let’s save college sports while we still can.

Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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