Cutting College Sports – Why Are Running Programs Getting the Axe?


On November 5, Clemson University became the second Power 5 school—after Minnesota—to announce it was cutting a track and field program at the end of the current academic year. Unlike Minnesota, however, Clemson is getting rid of the entire program: men’s cross country and indoor and outdoor track & field. No other sports were affected by the cuts.

The school’s athletic director, Dan Radakovich, said in a letter the decision was the result of numerous factors, but he acknowledged the department faced difficulties because of the coronavirus pandemic, including a projected $25 million budget shortfall.

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“The annual $2 million plus in savings [from cutting men’s track] will be reinvested into other athletic department initiatives, including our remaining Olympic sports and will help to provide additional financial stability moving forward,” Radakovich wrote.

The school has sponsored men’s track & field since 1953, and the program has won 23 ACC team championships and produced 16 individual NCAA champions, 22 Olympians, and four Olympic gold medalists.

But as with many other college athletic departments, Clemson’s athletic priorities are on the gridiron. The football team won national championships in 2016 and 2018, and in 2017, the school opened a 142,000-square-foot, $55 million football training facility. According to athletic department figures, football accounted for 74 percent of the revenues generated directly by the school’s sports teams in 2019. Men’s track accounted for 1.5 percent of revenue—and the program operated at a loss.

ncaa division i men'swomen's indoor track championship

John Lewis of Clemson runs the 800 meters at the 2018 NCAA indoor track & field championships.

Doug Stroud/NCAA PhotosGetty Images

By this point in 2020, the script seems familiar. With COVID-19 cited as a major factor, at least a dozen schools this year have ended track or cross-country programs or both, including Minnesota, William & Mary (which announced that it was reinstating all sports programs it cut, though promising only to do so through at least the 2021–22 school year), Central Michigan, University of Akron, Appalachian State, University of Connecticut, Florida International University, and a handful of other smaller colleges. Some, such as Brown University’s, were spared after blowback.

Across the college sports landscape, coaches and observers expect the pain to grow in the coming months. Athletics departments that were already running deficits have come under even greater pressure. Shortened football seasons, smaller conference revenue distributions, and mostly empty stadiums have combined with declining enrollment to create a dire situation at many schools.

But why are running programs quick to get the axe? And what can be done to save them? Here are some possible answers.

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What happened at the University of Minnesota?

2018 ncaa division i men's and women's outdoor track  field championship

Minnesota’s Obsa Ali wins the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2018 NCAA track & field championships. Men’s outdoor track at Minnesota has been spared for now, but indoor track has been cut.

Jamie SchwaberowGetty Images

In early September, the message came down from the University of Minnesota administration without much warning: Budget shortfalls would force the school to cut four sports, including men’s indoor and outdoor track. In October, the board of regents at Minnesota cut men’s indoor track and two other programs while agreeing to spare men’s cross country and outdoor track, though the latter program is expected to be “re-evaluated” in the spring, the university said in a statement.

Supporters of Minnesota’s program argue that the savings from cutting men’s track and field are small: About $630,000 for the combined men’s programs—less than 1 percent of a previously estimated $75 million loss in athletic revenue for this year. One member of the board of regents confirmed that assessment, telling Runner’s World that the first-year savings from cutting indoor men’s track would total $110,000.

Also, the $75 million budget shortfall was projected before the Big Ten conference announced that football was coming back. The actual shortfall could be less, depending on how many games Minnesota football plays, as the athletic department will collect media rights revenue for every game.

Minnesota’s overall athletics budget picture is much like Clemson’s, according to a USA Today database of NCAA finances: From 2005 to 2019, Minnesota’s total athletic department revenue increased 145 percent from $53.2 million to $130.4 million, and its expenses went up nearly as much—$53.8 million to $129.4 million.

The vast majority of the expense growth has come from coaching and staff salaries, which jumped from $16.7 million in 2005 to $43.8 million last year, and facilities and overhead, which surged 182 percent over the same time period, from $10.5 million to $29.6 million.

“I learned a long time ago [that] there’s always more money,” said Gary Wilson, who coached cross country and track for Minnesota for 20 years before retiring in 2013 and has been involved in the effort to save the Minnesota track programs. “It’s just who’s got it? And how do you get it? The priorities are completely screwed up.”

Are athletic programs at colleges and universities profitable?

The vast majority of college athletic departments operate at a loss: Just 25 NCAA Division I athletic departments—all of them in Power 5 (SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12) conference schools—generated more revenue than expenses in the 2018–19 academic year. But even in the Power 5 conferences, which together have 65 teams, 40 lose money.

In 2019, the range of Division I athletic department budgets was vast: From roughly $4.6 million at Coppin State University to $204 million at the University of Texas. The large majority of schools are dependent on institutional funding and fees to subsidize their athletic programs.

What role do football and basketball play in these decisions?

Football and men’s basketball are usually the primary revenue-generating sports in an athletic department. But they’re also where the majority of the money goes.

“Since the late 1980s, spending on football and men’s basketball has gone up 500 percent,” Dave Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University and past president of the Drake Group, which focuses on maintaining academic integrity in intercollegiate athletics, told Runner’s World. “[The cuts are] not a gender equity issue. It is a spending and budgeting issue. And I will say that till the day I die—that it is absolutely budget mismanagement and budget misprioritization.”

Ridpath says the “arms race” between schools over football and men’s basketball programs results in schools pouring the extra revenue back into those sports, while the Olympic sports receive little. In the end, most athletic directors are judged by the success of those two sports.

“I learned a long time ago [that] there’s always more money.”

“The real evidence is with Title IX,” he said. “Spending on male sports has quadrupled since Title IX enforcement. It was supposed to help balance budgets and equalize spending, but the opposite has happened. More revenue just means more excess toys for football and men’s basketball, and Title IX is used as an excuse for cutting Olympic sports.”

For administrators seeking to cut roster spots and expenses, the large roster sizes characteristic of track and cross-country teams make the sports easy targets. (In many cases, those roster spots are reallocated to other teams.) NCAA rules require its 130 FBS schools—those with the top college football programs in the country—to sponsor at least 16 sports, a number that appears to be keeping at least some schools from cutting more deeply after the NCAA declined to allow a blanket temporary exemption to that figure because of the coronavirus.

What about the finances of track and field programs?

The median men’s head track and field and cross country coach at Division I FBS schools went from $52,000 in 2004 to $103,000 in 2016, according to an NCAA report released in 2018. The median salary for women’s head coaches in track and cross country moved from $55,000 to $108,000 over the same time period.

Although running programs can generate revenue from fees for hosting home meets and through conference distributions, track and cross country programs are almost universally unprofitable. The combined men’s and women’s LSU track and cross country programs lost $4.5 million from 2015–16, and the University of New Mexico’s combined program lost $1.2 million in fiscal year 2017.

According to a 2018 NCAA report, the median of the 94 men’s Division I FBS track and cross country program in 2016 generated $60,000 in revenue—through ticket sales from meets, for instance—and had $681,000 in expenses. Factoring in allocated revenue from student fees, initiation support and state funding, the median men’s program operated at a $420,000 loss. The median of 125 women’s DI FBS programs pulled in $49,000 in revenues, had $739,000 in expenses, and, factoring in allocated revenue, operated at a $462,000 loss.

The real differences can be seen in Power 5 versus non-Power 5 conference schools (what the NCAA refers to as autonomy versus non-autonomy). In 2016, the median Division 1 Power 5 men’s program (there are 61) generated $193,000 in revenues and had $1.62 million in expenses, and, once other revenues were factored in, operated at a $1.32 million loss. The median Division 1 Power 5 women’s program had $170,000 in revenues, $1.87 million in expenses, and with other revenue considered, operated at a $1.42 million loss.

Non-autonomy schools also lose money, though their revenues and expenses are considerably less: The median men’s program lost $265,000 and the median women’s program lost $556,000.

What role do alumni and donors have to play in ensuring these programs survive?

Relying on pledges from alumni and supporters and raising money after a school announces its decision is an effort that comes almost always too late. At UConn, the track team raised at least $1.5 million in pledges in a few weeks, fearing the worst. The school ended up eliminating men’s cross country.

But that doesn’t mean the money from alumni doesn’t matter. It does.

“Encouraging a culture of philanthropy is a key to survival,” Elaine Calip, a former collegiate swimming and diving coach who now serves as a development director at the University of California, Berkeley, and previously led an effort at the University of Texas at Austin to endow the men’s swimming and diving program, told Runner’s World. “When I talk to donors who graduated in the ’70s and ’80s, they are under the impression that the state of California still supports the UC system schools with 50 or 60 percent of their budget. Well, that number has been dwindling for decades, and it keeps getting lower.”

Kendall Spencer, a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and former University of New Mexico track and field athlete, told Runner’s World that athletes need to do a better job of communicating the value they bring to their schools—especially to those outside the athletic department—and what they can do for schools after they graduate.

“It’s important to get those stories and that value out to people in the community, to people in academia—your provost, your dean,” said Spencer, who recently graduated from Georgetown Law and is hoping to make the 2021 U.S. Olympic team in long jump. “Sometimes communicating the athletic value doesn’t quite do it. However, when I go outside of that, and say, ‘Hey, I had this great experience at the University of New Mexico. Here’s what it did. And guess what? I just graduated from Georgetown Law. I’m now representing X, Y, and Z legally. And here’s what I’m doing for your community.’ They hear that.”

What role do endowments play in college athletic departments?

Endowing scholarships or coaching positions is perhaps the only guaranteed way to ensure a program survives long-term, but it’s also impractical for most schools—especially in the short-term. At Minnesota, officials estimated that to save all four teams that were cut or are facing cuts—men’s indoor and outdoor track, men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics—would require a $60 million endowment, an amount they believed would have been impossible to raise quickly under any circumstance, much less during an economic downturn.

Establishing endowments requires large donations, which sometimes come all at once or are built up over years-long campaigns. That amount is invested, and the income earned from that investment is distributed to pay for the scholarships or coaching positions. Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania are among the schools whose track and field head coaches are endowed.

Development officers certainly prefer unrestricted athletic donations because it enables departments to use the dollars for any purpose in the department. Many donations, though, go to endowments for specific teams. Flexibility can be valuable as budget needs change and rules change: The costs of travel, recruiting, game, and meet expenses are increasing, so having a team endowment with the ability to support any of those expenses is helpful.

Many universities that have cut athletic programs have endowments in the billions of dollars. Why can’t athletic departments tap those?

Even colleges and universities with endowments in the billions of dollars aren’t safe from cutting sports. Stanford University’s endowment was valued at $27 billion in October 2019, but the school is cutting 11 of its 36 varsity sports anyway—none of which were track and field or cross country—citing the coronavirus and the need to be more competitive in fewer sports.

A university’s endowment is almost always a series of smaller funds that are restricted for specific purposes—scholarships, research, professorships and other needs. At larger schools, perhaps 10–20 percent of a total endowment might be available to tap for reserves, said Jim Hundrieser, vice president for consulting services with the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). At smaller schools, there’s far less flexibility, and school endowment managers generally aren’t willing to spend down large portions of their endowments, because doing so takes away from future returns. As a general rule, schools spend about 4 percent of the earnings per year, leaving any extra to help grow the endowment further. In difficult times, some schools might bump that spending up to 5 or 6 percent.

Endowment sizes vary considerably. At the University of Akron, which cut men’s cross country earlier this year, citing the pandemic’s impact on finances, its endowment was $235 million at the end of the 2019 fiscal year, according to NACUBO. In other words, not even 1 percent the size of Stanford’s.

With so many programs operating at a loss, which ones are safe?

ncaa cross country championships 2016   pre race press conferences

Colorado coach Mark Wetmore appears at a press conference before the 2016 NCAA cross-country championships.

Daniel PettyGetty Images

Athletic departments and universities ultimately decide their priorities. At the University of Colorado, a school with a storied distance running program that has produced eight team championships and seven individual cross-country titles, about 23 percent of its 350 student athletes are on the cross-country and track and field teams.

“I don’t see us ever getting rid of those programs because there’s just too much history and tradition,” Cory Hilliard, senior associate athletic director overseeing business operations at Colorado, told Runner’s World. “But that doesn’t mean that budgets aren’t getting squeezed.”

Colorado’s men’s and women’s track and field and cross-country programs annually cost a little more than $3 million to operate, which includes about $438,000 for coaching and staff base salaries and $600,000 for travel and equipment. CU coach Mark Wetmore agreed to a three-year contract in 2018 that pays him $135,360 annually, not including performance bonuses. In April, Wetmore took a voluntary 5 percent pay cut—not counting lost bonuses—as the coronavirus canceled championships and seasons.

As many other schools have, Colorado has also trimmed its travel and operating budgets, keeping its teams closer to home. The Air Force Academy and Colorado State University are nearby.

Colorado’s athletics department fields 17 NCAA sports and pulled in roughly $94 million in revenue in 2019 while incurring $98 million in expenses, according to a USA Today database. That puts Colorado’s three-season cross country and track program—one that has produced several Olympians—at around 3 percent of Colorado’s overall athletics expenses. Football and men’s basketball makes up 70 percent of Colorado’s annual athletics department revenues, Hilliard said.

“Our last resort is to cut the sports or any of the student athlete support areas,” Hilliard said. “So the pressure was immediately put on the salary and benefit line (because of coronavirus). These were tough pills to swallow. But I think at the end of the day, the coaches understood that the priority was keeping our student athletes safe and healthy and maintaining their scholarships and commitment to them.”

What role do diversity and socioeconomic opportunity play in efforts to save teams?

Supporters of Brown University argued earlier this summer that the school’s decision to cut the men’s track and field team would end one of the school’s most racially diverse teams. The school reversed its decision just a few weeks later.

NCAA data from 2019 show that aside from football and men’s and women’s basketball, men’s outdoor and indoor track attracted the greatest percentage of Black athletes of any sport on campus across all NCAA divisions—23 and 22 percent, respectively. Women’s outdoor and indoor were close behind, with 21 and 20 percent of student athletes identifying as Black. The vast majority of the other sports beyond track have single-digit percentage Black representation.

“If you’re thinking about track and field as a provider of opportunity… track and field does that when you look at it [compared to] these other sports, some of which are prohibitively expensive.”

Former Princeton track and field sprinter Russell Dinkins has taken up the cause of several programs facing cuts, including those at Minnesota and Brown—and now, Clemson. At Minnesota, Dinkins told Runner’s World that its cuts would have affected 85 percent of the non-football and basketball Black athletes at the school.

“When you factor in the seasons of play, [Minnesota] is spending a lot more money on a lot fewer athletes and some of those sports, they’re losing just as much money and sometimes more money than track and field,” Dinkins said. “And these other sports are overwhelmingly white.”

Track and field is one of the most accessible sports available to youth athletes in the United States, Dinkins argues. It doesn’t require expensive equipment, extensive travel expenses, or money to rent space at a facility.

“If you’re thinking about track and field as a provider of opportunity, not only in terms of gender, but also in terms of social economics, track and field does that when you look at it [compared to] these other sports, some of which are prohibitively expensive,” he said, citing lacrosse and ice hockey as examples.

What opportunities are there for reform?

As colleges continue to cut, proposals for sweeping reform are growing louder. A study commissioned by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics conducted in June found that 80 percent of 362 Division I campus leaders — including presidents, athletic directors, conference commissioners, student-athletes and others—want to see major reform to address NCAA Division I governance. Most respondents said they didn’t believe NCAA Division I schools “shared common values about what intercollegiate athletics should be at an educational institution” and that there was far too much difference in resources across schools. The survey found majority support for conference-level agreements to cap sports’ operating budgets — including coaching salaries.

The NCAA earns most of its annual revenue from the Division I men’s basketball broadcast contract and championship ticket sales. This year, the distribution across DI schools was expected to be $600 million before being cut to $225 million because of the cancellation of the tournament. Separately, Division I FBS schools receive a distribution from the college football playoff, which was $468 million in 2019 and could be used for any purpose by the school.

The Knight Commission has recommended changing the distribution formula to exempt football, whose postseason the NCAA does not control or administer.

But the pressure on Olympic sports—like men’s cross country and track & field—during the pandemic has led to further soul searching about how those athletes are develop into the country’s future stars.

“U.S. sports’ development level needs to change,” said Ridpath, who advocates for greater government support to develop Olympic athletes, as is the case in other countries. “We cannot have a primary source of elite development being in the education system.”

More immediately, schools could be given the flexibility to fund sports at different levels and divisions. So, for example, a school may decide to fund five sports at the Division I level, but many more at a different level. “We need to play sports at a level we can afford and sustain,” Ridpath said. “And I do believe that that would be the catalyst for outside systems for elite development to manifest themselves.


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