In the weeks after the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down sports in the United States, college athletic departments began preparing for lost revenue. They braced for a drop in donations because of the uncertain economy, the loss of student fees that help subsidize their departments and the harrowing prospect of what the balance sheet might look like if football cannot be played this fall.
As athletic directors across the country faced their departments’ unknown futures, they began cutting teams. The stream of lost sports started with wrestling at Old Dominion, and dozens of others followed. The trouble finally reached the Power Five conferences Wednesday when Stanford announced it would discontinue 11 programs following the 2020-21 academic year.
The school will cut men’s volleyball, wrestling, field hockey and men’s and women’s fencing, as well as six programs that are not NCAA-sponsored championship sports — lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash and synchronized swimming.
Stanford has been known for its diverse array of varsity teams and its success in many nonrevenue sports. Stanford has won the Directors’ Cup, given to the best overall athletic department in Division I, for 25 straight years. The discontinued sports have produced 20 national championships and 27 Olympic medals.
After next year, 240 athletes will no longer be able to compete for Stanford. The 22 coaches who lead the cut programs will be forced to continue their careers elsewhere. Twenty support staff positions will also be eliminated.
“It’s absolutely devastating, honestly, to hear that your storied program, a place that you cherish, is being cut,” former Stanford volleyball player Kawika Shoji, who led the team to a national title in 2010 and won a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics, said in a phone interview. “Obviously that hurts, but then to think about the current student-athletes and coaching staff and how that affects them as well is something really hard to swallow.”
Stanford, which has an endowment valued at about $27 billion, announced its decision in a joint letter from university president Marc Tessier-Lavigne, provost Persis Drell and athletic director Bernard Muir. The school said that before the pandemic, the athletic department was projected to operate at a deficit of at least $12 million during the 2021 fiscal year. In the wake of the coronavirus, the school said the “best-case scenario” was a $25 million deficit. Stanford, the letter said, considered alternatives but found they were insufficient.
“We’ve got to cut from the top before we cut from the bottom,” David Ridpath, a professor of sports management at Ohio University, said in a phone interview in reference to the extravagant spending of college football and men’s basketball programs. “And what we’re doing now is we’re cutting from the bottom and cutting nothing from the top.”
Members of Stanford’s athletic department’s executive team, as well as some Cardinal head coaches, have taken voluntary pay cuts, and the university is planning for budget cuts of up to 10 percent because of the pandemic.
But across the country, college football budgets have continued to rise, with salaries of head coaches and their staffs escalating, as well as expenses such as staying at hotels the night before home games and large recruiting budgets. The revenue generated by football at Power Five schools often funds the rest of the athletic department’s programs. But in many cases, shaving just a fraction of the budget devoted to football could single-handedly prevent a program from being cut.
The loss of nonrevenue programs at Stanford and other universities threatens the pipeline of Olympic talent in the United States. Playing at the college level is an “enormous steppingstone to the Olympic experience and winning Olympic medals,” Shoji said. In 2016, the NCAA reported that more than 400 members of the U.S. Olympic team were future, current or former college athletes.
Twenty-nine current or former Stanford athletes competed for the United States at the 2016 Olympics, the most of any school, and that group combined to win 27 medals in Rio de Janeiro. Four of those came from athletes who played sports that were cut Wednesday. Shoji’s younger brother, Erik, also was part of the bronze medal-winning U.S. indoor volleyball team, for which every member of the roster had played at the college level. Former Stanford fencer Alexander Massialas, a two-time Olympian, won two medals in 2016.
Other schools have cut programs with Olympic success. This spring, Akron discontinued its cross-country program, which produced Clayton Murphy, who won bronze in the 800-meter run at the 2016 Olympics, becoming the first American man to win a medal in the event since 1992.
The timing of Stanford’s decision, with the news relayed via video calls, was not ideal, the school said in the letter. “However, we felt it was imperative to confront the financial challenge before it worsened, to undertake a deliberate and collaborative decision-making process with our Board of Trustees and campus leadership, and to exhaust all alternatives before making profound changes in our programs, especially during this difficult time.”
Before the cuts, Stanford had 36 varsity programs, a model that the school said it determined “is not sustainable,” while noting that the average Division I program sponsors 18 sports. Athletes represented 12 percent of the school’s undergraduate population. The school said it will honor scholarships for athletes who choose to stay at Stanford and the affected sports will be able to transition to club status after next year.
Stanford cited the dire financial situation, as well as its desire to maintain “competitive excellence” in the sports the school will continue to offer, as the reason for the cuts. If an adjusted football season further strains athletic departments, more universities probably will follow in Stanford’s footsteps. That path already had been forged by dozens of smaller schools, but now even Stanford, a school with a past commitment to a wide array of sports, has joined.
“Ultimately there might be a reason to drop a sport, but that should be the last thing on the table, the very last thing,” Ridpath said. “And I can assure you Stanford did not address everything. Other schools, Old Dominion and others who have dropped sports, did not address everything before they cut those sports.”