North Carolina Central University, a historically Black college, announced in February that its men’s baseball team – which formed in 1911 – would cease to exist after this season. The school’s athletic director called it “one of the most disappointing days in my career.” University leaders concluded that financial shortfalls due to COVID-19 were too much to support the team going forward.
Since COVID-19 emerged, dozens of colleges and universities have announced the elimination of different intercollegiate athletics teams. The vast majority of these cuts are at schools and teams that never show up on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
But the majority of closures came at regional and local campuses that participate in the NCAA’s Division II and Division III, or the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, around 30 teams were eliminated by community colleges.
Regardless of campus differences, COVID-19’s financial consequences are a shared rationale cited by university leaders for the recent closures. The 78 schools we examined spend around $87 million a year to keep all those teams going.
But there are other implications – positive as well as negative – for campuses themselves and how schools attract prospective students.
Entertainment and cultural value
Last season was also the final one for the University of Alaska-Anchorage’s men’s hockey and women’s gymnastics programs. In September, UAA’s Board of Regents voted to shut down both teams as well as alpine skiing. A last-minute fundraising drive raised over US$600,000 to save the latter.
Most university administrators don’t expect their athletics programs to make a lot of money. Only about 25 of the 1,100 NCAA member schools’ athletics departments generate a profit. Institutions often spend far more money than their teams will earn from ticket sales, broadcasting contracts and the like. Higher ed leaders say sports provide entertainment and cultural value for students and the local community. Along with civic and performing arts activities, they liven up a campus.
Funding and donors
Certain sports, like football, are also useful for cultivating donor and political relationships. A 2003 study found that public universities with NCAA Division I football teams received about 6% more in state funding annually than other institutions. And when those football teams win – especially against in-state rivals – state financial support goes up even more the next year.
Research also shows that having a varsity football program increases a school’s national visibility and status. Given this, we weren’t surprised that only four of the 300 teams eliminated between March and October were football.
A changing student body
Many colleges and universities depend on varsity sports – like rowing, track and swimming – to attract more students to attend. Athletes make up a sizable proportion of the general undergraduate population, especially at smaller schools. For example, NCAA Division III campuses enroll an average of 2,600 students, and one out of every four is a varsity athlete.
Approximately 500,000 athletes compete across the three NCAA divisions each year. Research shows sports is the top factor in athletes’ college choice decision – outweighing academics, the campus social scene or proximity to home.
So with fewer sports, the student body at some of these schools might change. For example, Stanford’s admissions office will no longer need to reserve 240 or so spots for accomplished fencers, field hockey and squash players, rowers, sailors, synchronized swimmers, men’s volleyball athletes and wrestlers.
Playing sports can also help with the transition into college. An intercollegiate team provides a ready-made social group that can help the new team member adjust to their new school.Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images
While the demands of big-time programs in men’s basketball and football can cause academic challenges for these students, studies have found that overall, athletes perform just as well in classes and have a higher likelihood of graduating compared to other students.
Research also shows that hiring managers value college sports experience. Some studies have found that former athletes have higher salaries and career success, on average, than other post-secondary graduates.
The full implications of the abrupt, unprecedented stop of intercollegiate athletics – and what it means for athletes, coaches, schools and beyond – is still unclear.
Eventually, “big-time” programs like Duke men’s basketball and Louisiana State University football will be back to business as usual. For many other schools, COVID-19’s effects will be more expansive and long-lasting.
The financial savings for athletics departments are immediate and obvious. But a longer-term impact will be seen on enrollment, campus life and the communities where colleges are located.
Being a team member in a sport that doesn’t draw thousands of spectators or bring in millions of dollars still builds special connections to campuses that can foster institutional giving and enhance the health and longevity of participants.
- ^ announced (twitter.com)
- ^ athletic director called it (www.newsobserver.com)
- ^ intercollegiate athletics teams (www.nytimes.com)
- ^ ESPN’s SportsCenter (www.espn.com)
- ^ 300 teams (sites.google.com)
- ^ Stanford (news.stanford.edu)
- ^ National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (www.naia.org)
- ^ U.S. participation in the Olympics (www.nbcnews.com)
- ^ voted to shut down (www.adn.com)
- ^ over US$600,000 to save the latter (skiracing.com)
- ^ 25 of the 1,100 NCAA member schools’ (www.ncaa.org)
- ^ Higher ed leaders say (doi.org)
- ^ 6% more in state funding (www.researchgate.net)
- ^ national visibility and status (doi.org)
- ^ one out of every four (ncaaorg.s3.amazonaws.com)
- ^ 500,000 athletes (www.ncaa.org)
- ^ sports is the top factor (www.ncaa.org)
- ^ federal data (ope.ed.gov)
- ^ Division III (ncaaorg.s3.amazonaws.com)
- ^ Ivy League (www.theatlantic.com)
- ^ not on an athletic scholarship (ncaaorg.s3.amazonaws.com)
- ^ 240 or so spots (www.si.com)
- ^ new opportunities (news.dartmouth.edu)
- ^ Research (doi.org)
- ^ improves an applicant’s chances of admission (doi.org)
- ^ Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images (www.gettyimages.com)
- ^ can cause academic challenges (188.8.131.52)
- ^ just as well in classes (doi.org)
- ^ have a higher likelihood of graduating (doi.org)
- ^ Research (doi.org)
- ^ higher salaries and career success (doi.org)
- ^ Duke men’s basketball (www.wsmv.com)
- ^ Louisiana State University football (www.espn.com)
- ^ back to business as usual (www.si.com)
- ^ Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter (theconversation.com)
- ^ enhance the health (doi.org)
- ^ longevity of participants (doi.org)
Authors: Molly Ott, Associate Professor of Higher & Postsecondary Education, Arizona State University