In both cases, wildly successful football teams pay the freight for Olympic teams. But that’s rare. More often, Division I schools spend as much on football as they earn (in some cases more), fearing that paring back would undercut the squad’s competitiveness.
That’s no way to sustain a broad-based athletic department, as Maryland officials learned after five consecutive years in which revenue from football, men’s basketball and fundraising declined.
For years Maryland masked its deficit-spending by tapping a reserve fund to cover shortfalls. But the fund ran dry, and the department had to borrow to pays its bills.
With the deficit projected to top $17 million by 2017, President Wallace D. Loh announced in November that Maryland would cut eight of its 27 varsity teams: all three men’s track teams (indoor track and field, outdoor track and field, cross-country); men’s and women’s swimming and diving; men’s tennis; women’s water polo and acrobatics and tumbling (formerly known as competitive cheer).
“The Division I business model is broken; it’s not sustainable,” says Moyer, of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. “And unfortunately, a lot of Olympic sports are being mortgaged to keep fueling something that isn’t sustainable. The easy thing to do is just drop sports. It used to be where schools dropped a sport or two. Now, it’s eight to 10.”
In recent years, Olympic sports have started fighting back. Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, has been particularly proactive in working with the NCAA and college athletic directors to develop ways to spare gymnastics — as well as other Olympic sports that have been identified as “at risk” (swimming, synchronized swimming, diving, volleyball, wrestling and water polo) — from further cuts.
“My perception is that these days, no sport is safe from the economic challenges schools are facing,” Penny says. “We all recognize there is a greater danger today than there was 20 years ago.”
Relations between the NCAA and USOC have historically been icy. But on this issue, both groups appear to see the wisdom of working together to prevent further erosion of Olympic sports.
“It definitely does matter to us,” says Joni Comstock, the NCAA’s senior vice president for championships. “We want to support our NCAA student-athletes, particularly if their experiences and their dreams include the Olympics. Having said that, we all have to acknowledge that each of our individual member institutions have the right to define their mission as it relates to their intercollegiate athletic programs.”
In Penny’s view, Olympic sports must figure out how to be financially self-sustaining — or something close to it — if they’re to survive as varsity teams. That means developing savvy marketing and fundraising programs and targeting deep-pocketed donors among business leaders, alumni and former Olympians who’ve made good.
“That’s the biggest drum that needs to be beaten,” Penny says. “There are potential donors that are completely untapped. It’s like oil waiting to be drilled.”
The wrestling coaches’ association is pursuing the same tack, investing $850,000 in a CEO leadership academy in which young college coaches learn fundraising and marketing skills. It has launched the Greater Washington Wrestlers and Business Network, which pulls together corporate CEOs with wrestling backgrounds to help coaches at American, Maryland and George Mason develop business plans that should steel them against future budget cutbacks.
The end game for all Olympic sports is to raise enough money to fund endowments capable of covering the costs of scholarships, travel and coaches’ salaries.
“There are some intercollegiate programs that generate a lot of money, and that’s great.” Moyer says. “But there has to be a balance. It’s just unfortunate when we get to a point where we think the student-athlete experience in one sport is more meaningful than another. The fact is, they all matter.”