Dropping eight sports is commission’s recommendation

The commission charged with tackling the multi-million dollar deficit in Maryland athletics will recommend the university drop eight of its 27 varsity teams to remedy the shortfall, according to a person with first-hand knowledge of the report.

The teams targeted for elimination are all three men’s running teams (indoor track and field, outdoor track and field, cross-country); men’s swimming and diving; women’s swimming and diving; men’s tennis; women’s water polo and aerobics and tumbling (formerly known as competitive cheer), the person said.

But the final decision about whether to drop the teams — or pare some lesser number — belongs to Maryland President Wallace D. Loh, who appointed the 17-member President’s Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in July after the Terrapins’ athletics program had spent more than it generated for several years.

The recommendation calls for the elimination of five men’s teams and three women’s, which would affect as many as 166 Terrapin student-athletes.

Maryland’s deficit-spending in sports had been masked by the practice of tapping athletic-department reserve funds to cover any shortfall at the end of the fiscal year. But with the fund depleted, the athletics department had to borrow $1.2 million from the university to cover last year’s deficit.

The deficit is projected to hit $4.7 million this year and more than triple, topping $17 million, by 2017 unless business practices are radically altered.

Loh directed the 17-member commission to explore ways to both create new revenue for the athletic department and cut costs. It’s increasingly apparent that the panel was unable to identify any major new revenue stream — certainly not one big enough to spare drastic cost-cutting measures.

According to preliminary figures, the athletics department could pare roughly $5 million from its $57.7 million annual budget by dropping the eight teams identify.

Loh initially said he would make his decision by Dec. 31, but he’s now expected to accelerate that timetable.

Regardless of his decision, all of Maryland’s 27 varsity teams will compete through the 2011-12 academic year. Any cuts will take effect next summer.

Maryland will honor the scholarships of all varsity athletes regardless of whether their teams are phased out. In addition, Maryland will help any athletes whose teams are dropped transfer elsewhere, if that’s their preference.

All current coaches’ contracts will be honored, as well.

A decision to drop any sport is sure to touch off protests by students, alumni and supporters and could also trigger lawsuits, as was the case at James Madison when the university announced it was dropping 10 sports.

On other hand, it may spur a wave of philanthropy, inspiring donors to raise enough private money to save the teams. That’s what happened after California-Berkeley announced last year that it was cutting five sports.

But it could take $5-10 million to fully fund an endowment capable of generating enough income to cover scholarships, coaching salaries, travel costs and operating expenses for a single varsity team.

Maryland has a poor record of private giving to its sports program, ranking 11th among 12 in the ACC.

Maryland ranks dead last in the ACC in spending per athlete. In the view of some, that’s one argument in favor or reducing the number of varsity teams, so Maryland can give each athlete a higher quality experience.

Others argue that the purpose of college athletics transcends financial analysis. As they see it, its purpose is to enrich and challenge students beyond the classroom and, as a result, should be offered with as much variety and opportunity as possible.

Liz Clarke currently covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. She has also covered seven Olympic Games, two World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing.

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