Maryland Athetic Director Kevin Anderson is confronting financial challenges in his department. (Toni L. Sandys/WASHINGTON POST)

Maryland football is projected to struggle this season, picked to finish fifth in the ACC’s Atlantic Division by the league’s press corps. And the men’s basketball team is in the throes of rebuilding, with just eight scholarship players on its roster.

But the biggest challenge facing Maryland athletics in the coming months will unfold away from the playing fields, as the athletic department grapples with a roughly $1.2 million operating deficit from this past year that university President Wallace D. Loh says must be addressed.

Unless well-heeled boosters and civic-minded corporations step forward to bridge the gap — an unlikely event given the state of the economy and a recent decline in giving to the university’s athletic programs — Maryland likely has two options:

●Reducing spending on sports across the board, paring the budgets of all 27 varsity teams and, as a result, likely making all less competitive.

●Eliminating a handful of teams — with men’s teams apt to be cut before women’s to satisfy a federal law mandating gender equality — a step that has proved fraught with political, legal and public-relations hurdles when tried elsewhere.

Maryland is hardly alone in spending more on varsity sports than it brings in. Only 22 of 120 football-playing division I-A athletic departments turned a profit, based on 2009-10 NCAA budget figures. The median deficit among the 98 others was $11.3 million.

For the past several years, Maryland athletic administrators have tapped a reserve fund to cover such shortfalls. But that fund is depleted — the result of repeated withdrawals and a 24 percent drop in donations over the past three years — which forced the department to borrow from the university’s auxiliary fund balances to pay its bills this past fiscal year.

Noting that such deficits “will likely grow in the coming years” if the trends aren’t reversed, Loh in July appointed a 17-member commission to suggest ways of paring expenses and increasing revenue. The panel is to report back in December.

Cutting sports wasn’t explicitly mentioned in Loh’s charge. But when Athletic Director Kevin Anderson was asked last fall whether he felt that 27 varsity sports were sustainable, he said “there are going to be some tough decisions down the road” if Maryland failed to significantly expand its donor base and boost sales of football tickets and luxury suites.

“I’d rather tackle the first,” Anderson said, referring to the challenge of increasing philanthropy and game-day revenue. “Hopefully if we are successful doing the first, we won’t have to revert back to the latter.”

That may be difficult.

Maryland faces an uphill battle in boosting athletic giving. Donations to Terrapins athletics declined each of the past three years, according to NCAA documents, falling from $13 million in 2006-07 to $9.9 million in 2009-10. That coincided with a loss of roughly 1,600 members in the Terrapin Club, the department’s chief fundraising vehicle, a university spokesman said.

Meantime, attendance at football games has steadily declined over the past five years — from 49,393 to 39,169 last season, according to NCAA figures. That has hurt not only game-day revenue but also plans to retire a $35 million debt on a $50.8 million expansion of Byrd Stadium undertaken in 2006. At the time, athletic department officials insisted that the increase in attendance generated by the new luxury suites and 54,000-seat capacity would “more than pay” for the project. Instead, attendance is down 20 percent.

Tough decisions

Maryland skews high in offering 27 varsity sports (26 by count of the Department of Education, which doesn’t recognize competitive cheerleading as a sport). That’s well above the NCAA-mandated minimum of 16 for I-A football-playing schools.

Just two Atlantic Coast Conference schools (Boston College and North Carolina) offer more sports than Maryland. It’s reflective of a long-held belief in College Park and throughout the ACC that a broad array of sports is integral to the mission of higher education despite that fact only football and men’s basketball make money.

If Loh concludes that 27 sports are too many, Maryland’s real challenge begins. Even if the university makes a compelling case for cutting sports — and even if it follows a process that’s mindful of Title IX, the federal law guaranteeing equal opportunity for men and women — the experience of other schools suggests Maryland may find itself in a firestorm of protests from angry alumni and a protracted legal battle.

James Madison University dropped 10 sports (seven men’s and three women’s) in 2006 in an effort to comply with Title IX’s mandate. Ever since, it has been in litigation over a claim that the cuts discriminated against male athletes. While courts have sided with the university at every turn, defending the cuts has been costly.

Faced with a $13.5 million annual deficit, California-Berkeley Athletic Director Sandy Barbour announced in September 2010 that four sports would be dropped (baseball, women’s lacrosse and men’s and women’s gymnastics) and a fifth (rugby) demoted to club status to save $4 million.

The decision flew in the face of Cal’s tradition of offering a broad range of sports. But Barbour felt she had just two options: “Either make cuts across all 29 programs that I believed would make every one of our programs mediocre across the board,” she recounted in a telephone interview, “or make the other really difficult decision, which was to shrink the size of our programs to the point where we could sustain a smaller number of programs.”

The reaction was swift and vocal, as was the Web site that popped up. With baseball and rugby boosters leading the way, donations poured in. Still, simply raising enough money to remedy the shortfall for a single year wasn’t enough to save the teams. For long-term sustainability, Cal officials required teams to raise enough money to cover their direct and indirect costs for seven to 10 years. Baseball alone raised more than $10 million to fund its own endowment.

Cal’s total giving in response to the cutbacks topped $20 million in May and was still going. That’s more than double Maryland’s annual giving for its entire sports department in 2009-10.

Whether Berkeley’s solution can be replicated at Maryland is an open question.

Title IX complications

If Loh concludes that he has no option but to drop sports, he almost certainly will cut men’s sports more heavily than women’s in order to remain in compliance with Title IX.

Women account for 47.7 percent of undergraduates at Maryland and 47.1 percent of total athletes, according to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. That barely meets the most common legal standard for complying with Title IX — the proportionality test that says the number scholarship opportunities by gender must mirror enrollment by gender.

While football (with 85 NCAA scholarships) accounts for the lion’s share of the athletic budget at schools that compete in it at the highest level, it also generates the most revenue. As a result, administrators are reluctant to reduce spending on football, fearing that saving a dollar may cost them twice that in revenue in the long run if the cuts blunt the team’s competitive edge.

So the logical response — at least from an accounting standpoint — is to cut men’s sports that lose money. The sports that typically have been cut at other schools include gymnastics, wrestling, swimming and tennis.

Maryland is far from identifying what sports it might cut, if any. But among the criteria often used in such analysis are teams’ recent record in NCAA and conference championships, cost per athlete and cost of maintaining facilities.

The trend of cutting men’s sports has been among the unintended consequences of ramped-up enforcement of Title IX in the 1990s, according to Welch Suggs, author of “A Place on the Team: The Triumph and Tragedy of Title IX” and a professor of journalism at Georgia.

“It’s impossible to cut a women’s sport unless you can maintain your proportionality [while doing so], so virtually all schools are effectively constrained from cutting women’s sports,” Suggs said. “So what is left to cut? Schools are under pressure to comply with the law, and often they choose the cheapest option of cutting men’s sports, which philosophically is a very difficult position to be in but, from a compliance and accounting standpoint, it’s pretty easy.”

Both the Women’s Sports Council and the American Sports Council, formed largely in response to the elimination of so many men’s sports, favor across-the-board cuts at schools forced to reduce spending.

“It’s never in women’s interests to be cutting men’s sports because that’s where our power comes from — having strong men’s programs,” said former Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead, a lawyer and former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Added Eric Pearson, chairman of the American Sports Council: “We’d like to see schools preserve the opportunities and spread the cuts, so if you do have budget cuts, instead of taking out a whole team you trim across the board, with every team feeling the cuts equally. That way, alumni can step up and supplement teams with donations.”