How Olympic sports are fighting for survival at the collegiate level

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN's Andrea Adelson, Adam Rittenberg, Alex Scarborough and Mechelle Voepel reported on and wrote this story.

It's early 2021, and the men's gymnastics dual meet between Minnesota and Penn State is about to begin. Gymnasts warm up on floor, rings, pommel horse, bars and vault, while the judges settle into their seats.

Before the first event, a set of cameras and computers are checked. Penn State is the home team and will compete at Rec Hall in State College. But the Nittany Lions technically aren't hosting anyone.

Minnesota will be competing at Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis, more than 970 miles away.

And the judges? They're at home, watching competitors via live stream.

The dual meet has gone virtual.

This potential cost-saving strategy is less than ideal, but it's a sensible competition option for men's gymnastics, one of many Olympic sports trying to survive the financial crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic. Programs are being cut almost every week, as desperate athletic directors try to find solutions despite grim financial forecasts. These programs have long been budgetary drains on athletic departments, and many believe the pandemic has accelerated a reckoning.

But this unprecedented time also brings opportunities for Olympic sports to reinvent themselves and find creative solutions to save money -- particularly costs around travel, staff and facilities -- and survive. The pandemic is bluntly showing that the old model is no longer sustainable.

"If anyone's talked about, 'Oh, I can't wait until we get back to normal,'" Minnesota men's gymnastics coach Mike Burns said. "What are you talking about? It's never going to be back to normal. That was a comfort zone we lived in, and moving forward, we're going to have a new comfort zone."

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What does the future hold?

Virtual competitions, alumni gifts and TV deals: How to save money

While the pandemic has caused widespread panic, it has forced sport groups to get creative about their future.

Swimming and diving teams could still travel for winter training if they fundraise for the trips on their own. Utah men's swimming and diving coach Joe Dykstra said that's what happened at North Texas when he coached there.

Pools are expensive to operate, so programs that share their pools with the university's student recreation department don't incur such heavy costs.

"East Carolina just cut their men's and women's swimming and diving teams, which were highly successful, multiyear conference champion teams, and cited the fact that the pool was old," Dykstra said. "Rebuilding a new pool was going to cost millions of dollars that they didn't have, so they chose to put those resources into other sports that had facilities that were a little more up-to-date."

Like every other head coach at Minnesota, Burns was instructed to cut 15% of his operating budget. He postponed buying new foam for the team's loose-foam pit (a $6,000 expense), sought lower officiating costs for meets and purchased new competition jerseys ($60 to $70 each) for only incoming gymnasts.

As for the virtual competitions, there are concerns, especially around technology and its reliability for the remote judges. But they have already occurred at the club level, and they are being explored for Division I.

"It's not something you want to do all the time, because part of sports is, 'Hey, we're going to the away meet. We're going into the lion's den at Penn State,'" Burns said. "It's that battle you have in sports, and that's a big part of it. However, unlike football or basketball or wrestling, where you need the other guys on the field with you, we could challenge our people to say, 'Hey, we're going to save $20,000 to $30,000 on our travel budget this year because we're going to do a couple meets virtually.'"

Television is another potential solution. Florida women's tennis coach Roland Thornqvist has watched the elimination of tennis programs with great concern, and he believes he has one possible fix to save the sport for the long term: TV. Thornqvist, who also serves on the Intercollegiate Tennis Association board of directors, knows college tennis has to find a way to improve its exposure in order to improve its relevance and save programs.

In the way televised gymnastics, softball and women's volleyball have improved exposure for their respective sports, Thornqvist believes the same can happen for women's tennis. He points out that nearly everybody in the country has seen Serena Williams play, and professional women's tennis draws the best ratings in women's televised sports.

There's also the option of looking more to those most invested in an athletic program to give back to it.

Almost as soon as Bowling Green athletic director Bob Moosbrugger announced that the school would be cutting its baseball program, his phone started buzzing with former teammates, alumni and boosters wanting answers.

There was anger and denial. And then, when they finally acknowledged that, no, they would not like to see a different program cut instead of baseball, came the bargaining.

"What's the number?" they asked.

Moosbrugger, who played baseball at BGSU from 1991 to 1994 and took over as AD in 2016, expected this type of response. So he met with university president Rodney Rogers, and they came up with the proverbial number: a five-year commitment of $750,000 per year.

Moosbrugger didn't think it was realistic they could come up with the money.

But then a group comprised mostly of former baseball players went out and raised $1 million. Rogers then acknowledged that since they already had committed to honoring the existing scholarships, they could adjust the figure to $500,000 per year.

On June 2 -- two weeks after the announcement to cut baseball -- the program was reinstated. Albeit, Moosbrugger added, "With the understanding that we're still working toward a five-year commitment, and with the understanding that the model of college athletics may change."

Moosbrugger knows there will be skepticism. All the financial commitments they've received still need to convert to actual dollars, he said. And while he certainly hopes that the larger gifts will continue in the future, he acknowledged that's "probably not" going to happen.

Baseball, especially at the mid-major level, is already reliant on fundraising. Besides, not every school has the tradition of BGSU -- and the alumni base that comes with it.

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Tony Brown on Furman's baseball program shutting down

Tony Brown, son of former Bears DE Alex Brown, expresses how sad he is about Furman shutting down its baseball program due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"You don't want that to be how you survive," Ball State baseball coach Rich Maloney said. "You want that to be how you thrive."

That give-and-take was already playing out before the coronavirus hit, Moosbrugger said, and now it's only amplifying the need for systemic change.

"We're all trying to figure it out," Florida State softball coach Lonni Alameda said. "We're all in a bunch of buoys out there floating around in the water, trying to figure out which way we're going to go."

'I think you'll see some drastic cuts if football isn't allowed to go off'

While using creativity to save money is a start, in many cases, the pandemic has exacerbated existing budget shortfalls.

Shortly after college sports shut down in March, ADs had to make difficult decisions about their finances. In some cases, they made the last-resort decision of cutting sports programs. To make it worse, they delivered the news in the most impersonal way possible: through video conferencing.

"I don't wish that upon anyone," said Central Michigan athletic director Michael Alford, who made the decision to cut the men's indoor and outdoor track and field teams in May.

Central Michigan is not alone, as more than 10 Division I schools have eliminated programs since the pandemic began. The cuts speak to a system that has spiraled out of control over the past decade. While many athletic departments do not make money and most carry some form of debt, all are reliant on football and basketball revenues. When sports shut down, athletic directors saw their bottom lines shift in unprecedented ways. Nothing could have prepared them for a pandemic.

"We're all in a bunch of buoys out there floating around in the water, trying to figure out which way we're going to go."
Florida State softball coach Lonni Alameda

As money poured into athletic departments over the past decade from nine-figure television rights contracts, spending ballooned on coaches' salaries, support staffs, facilities and travel.

"When you've got coaches making more than the highest administrator at the school and more than the entire leadership in the government in the state, that's a little crazy to me," Houston track and field coach Leroy Burrell said. "Olympic sports are getting scapegoated, they're bearing the brunt of it and oftentimes it's the first thing that gets cut."

As athletic directors assess budgets, Olympic sports are often pitted against each other and forced to state their cases for preservation, especially if program cuts are looming. Some football coaches are questioning why their programs should cut back at all, since their revenue sustains Olympic sports programs, one FBS coach said.

The most important thing, South Alabama baseball coach Mark Calvi explained, is that they get students back on campus and "we crank up football."

"That's the driving force," he said. "I think you'll see some drastic cuts if football isn't allowed to go off."

Still, some Olympic sport coaches want to see those cuts shared equally, no matter what happens with the football season.

"It's really difficult to face your student-athletes and say this year we're going to reduce our travel expenditures a little bit," Burrell said. "We're not going to make a normal trip we'd typically make yet [in other sports] -- and I'm not saying this is necessarily the case here -- you have a football staff that makes more than the whole track and field budget."

Other than scholarships and staffing, team travel is the biggest budget line item for Olympic sports and the area hit hardest during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While traditional conference schedules are valuable for revenue-generating sports, Olympic sports programs are studying models that provide more financial flexibility. These could include more games against certain league opponents and less with others, based on proximity, or an independent model in which each program fills out its slate before reuniting with other league members for postseason tournaments.

"That independent model, basically everything's nonconference until you have a conference championship," Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen said. "That way, schools that want to compete nationally, if that means flying and going all over, then you do it. Schools that just want to have a good experience but are maybe more economically challenged, maybe a team doesn't get on a plane all year.

"If I wanted to, I could fill up most of my sports and never go more than three hours away."

Greater scheduling flexibility can even help stronger programs in the Group of 5. Tulane's baseball team could still play other top-25 teams from the AAC like UCF and East Carolina, but its overall schedule would be more regionalized. In March, Tulane played a weekend series against Southern University: two games in New Orleans, one in Baton Rouge, and zero hotel rooms needed.

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco thinks an independent model -- or potentially a hybrid model of some more regionalized league games, when possible -- could work for Olympic sports. When Aresco first began programming college events for ESPN and later CBS, conferences were smaller and more regionalized. Realignment has increased the financial strain for Olympic sports programs already guaranteed to lose money.

"It would give an AD a lot more flexibility if cost savings were the emphasis," Aresco said. "If RPI were important, that could be the emphasis. If travel time for the student-athletes was the emphasis, that could be a factor. It's a new paradigm, the idea that you wouldn't just have conference play when it came to Olympic sports."

Sports such as baseball are examining which teams they play with, and when. Last month, coaches representing each Power 5 conference -- Michigan's Erik Bakich, Vanderbilt's Tim Corbin, TCU's Jim Schlossnagle, Louisville's Dan McDonnell and UCLA's John Savage -- presented a 35-page proposal to move back the start of the season from mid-February to the third Friday in March. Previous proposals -- pushed by coaches from northern schools and based on competitive equity -- always failed.

The latest campaign is rooted in economics. Northern teams no longer would be required to take expensive trips to warm-weather states for early-season games or tournaments. Most southern teams project to add revenue with more home games in May and June. The proposal shows cold-weather teams spend an average of $232,728 on travel during the first month of the season, while just $88,864 on average during the final month of the season.

"The data says it doesn't make any financial sense to start the college baseball season on Valentine's Day," Bakich said. "This not only looks to raise the ceiling of college baseball, but also raise the floor significantly. Baseball may not become a revenue sport among all teams, but it will create an opportunity where a lot of teams won't be such a drain on their athletic departments."

In the short term, though, it may be difficult for teams to play their upcoming schedules as they are currently configured. Alameda said she has already fielded multiple calls about schools that are unable to travel to Tallahassee for the 2021 season, and there is a possibility the Seminoles won't play their 56 games for that reason.

"We're a pretty resilient sport, and if we have the luxury of being able to travel all over the country and play, that's awesome," Alameda said. "If we're within 30 miles, we will make it awesome."

At many schools, flights are off the table for now. South Alabama baseball will drive the nine hours to Texas instead. Calvi said the move back to bus rides will save the program approximately $20,000 to $25,000 per flight.

Nebraska women's volleyball coach John Cook said early-season matchups pairing the nation's best programs won't happen this season. Instead of seeing powerhouses such as Nebraska, Stanford, Texas and Wisconsin gather at one of those schools to play, they'll all be competing against closer geographical competition if they have nonconference matches.

Stanford, which has won three of the past four NCAA women's volleyball titles, must now play all its nonconference matches in California. But senior outside hitter Meghan McClure is looking on the bright side: The state generally has plenty of competitive volleyball teams. Plus, as a native Californian, she thinks her family will be able to attend all those matches.

"We're still going to be playing the majority of our matches away from Maples [Pavilion], which will help us prepare for the NCAA tournament and our Pac-12 road matches," McClure said. "For our entire nonconference, we're going to be traveling by bus, which will limit our chances of exposure to the virus."

Schools also will work together to lower travel expenses for recruiting. Colorado State athletic director Joe Parker was surprised to learn that when international recruits in some Olympic sports take recruiting tours, their prospective schools share the travel cost.

Conferences are also eliminating or truncating league tournaments. In May, the MAC announced it was cancelling conference tournaments in eight Olympic sports, and reducing the number of days for tournaments in seven others.

Central Michigan's Alford, who served on the committee that made the recommendations, said the process began well before the pandemic.

"It's hard to predict," MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. "We laid out a four-year timeline with the caveat that as the economic situation improves, we'll certainly go back and reanalyze what we're doing."

'Do we need this? Do we have to have this? Or can we live without it?'

Texas executive senior associate athletic director Chris Plonsky thinks spending changes in college sports were inevitable.

"Things like volleyball teams taking spring training trips to Florida or Hawaii," Plonsky said. "Tennis players missing 30 days of class while they play high-level satellite tournaments in the fall. Is this what was really intended for their offseason?

"Life as we know it has changed in the near term, but what we may learn from it are some applicable things that might make the lives of coaches and kids better."

Plonsky attributes "bloat" in athletic departments to the budget creep of programs trying to give the best to their athletes, but also perhaps one-up each other.

"We are in the business of providing a plethora of services and benefits," she said. "But this year, we'll have about 570 student-athletes, and under very different constraints. We want to provide the best experience for them. But we have to ask, 'Do we need this? Do we have to have this? Or can we live without it?'"

"It's never going to be back to normal. That was a comfort zone we lived in, and moving forward, we're going to have a new comfort zone."
Minnesota men's gymnastics coach Mike Burns

Said Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill: "The reality is this has accelerated history. I don't know that it changed history. You have seen Division I moving to a program menu that is closer to the minimums than you would have seen in the past."

Take Akron, for instance. AD Larry Williams was already looking at three- and five-year plans to address budget shortfalls due to a projected dip in enrollment. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which he said "carpet-bombed our runway" and led to the school eliminating three programs: men's cross country, men's golf and women's tennis.

It was "heart-wrenching" to make those calls to the coaches and athletes involved, Williams said, but facing hard truths was necessary to move forward. That meant getting leaner and focusing on their strengths, like men's soccer, which has won its regular-season conference title in three of the past five seasons.

East Carolina faced similar issues before the COVID-19 pandemic, too. The athletic department projected a $7.5 million operating deficit in January. After the pandemic shut everything down, the projected deficit climbed to between $10 million and $12 million. The Pirates fielded 20 teams but had one of the lowest budgets in the AAC.

Liberty baseball coach Scott Jackson thinks athletic directors are seizing upon an opportunity and using the pandemic as cover to cut nonrevenue sports they had their eye on all along.

"I think you're looking at it like, 'OK, here's my opportunity to strip it back down,'" he said. "I know one school that just cut some sports was operating at a $5 million deficit before the coronavirus hit. ... How is that possible?"

It's sad, Jackson said, that coaching buyouts so prevalent in football and basketball and mismanaged funds so often lead to athletes in nonrevenue sports paying the price.

"We keep getting kicked around in all this," he said.

Maybe it's not even a conscious decision, said Texas Tech men's golf coach Greg Sands.

"I think it's more of, 'Hey, this is a business we have to run more efficiently, and what are the ways we have to get that done?'"

Sport reductions may continue during the pandemic, but they are not guaranteed financial fixes. First, the NCAA requires a minimum of 16 sports to remain at the FBS level, and many Group of 5 schools are either at or near that threshold. Second, the large majority of Olympic sports athletes pay part or most of their tuition. If their programs are cut, why would they stick around?

Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen held the same role at Northern Iowa when the school cut its baseball program. Thirty of the 33 players transferred, resulting in a significant tuition loss.

But at some schools, there's no more sports left to cut. And again, it all comes back to football revenue, because in order to compete at the FBS level, schools must also offer a minimum of 200 athletic grants-in-aid or a total of $4 million in grants-in-aid to student-athletes.

In April, commissioners from the Group of 5 sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert asking for temporary relief from financial aid requirements. The letter cited the impact of COVID-19, calling the fallout of the virus the "direst financial crisis for higher education since at least the Great Depression."

That same month, the 22 Division I conferences outside of the Power 5 joined the Group of 5 in asking the NCAA to relax FBS requirements, including the 16-sport minimum.

In response, a group called the Intercollegiate Coach Association Coalition -- made up of 21 organizations representing Olympic sports that include volleyball, wrestling, soccer and track -- wrote their own letter to Emmert, saying that reducing the minimum sports sponsorship "should not be an option."

The ICAC strengthened in opposition to the Group of 5's petition for the blanket waiver.

"We just got together and said, 'The Olympic sports have so much in common,' and we started communicating more regularly," said Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. "Working with the NCAA, many times it's easier to get legislation passed -- or successfully oppose it -- if you can have a group of Olympic sports behind it."

In this case, the NCAA denied the request to relax the 16-team requirement. Any athletic department that feels the dire need to dip below 16 teams must apply for a waiver. Central Michigan remains at the 16-team minimum.

But the elimination of the track teams dropped CMU to just five men's sports, one below the minimum requirement of six men's sports. Alford said the school applied to the NCAA for a waiver, which was granted. The school has two years to get back into compliance.

While schools continue to make cuts across the board to make up for lost revenue from the last fiscal year, unknowns remain, making it difficult to assess whether this is the worst of it, or if there is far worse to come.

If football cannot play to full stadiums, or if the season gets interrupted or canceled, all schools will suffer. UCF athletic director Danny White said there is no way he can make his financial model work with an empty stadium or even a stadium filled at 25% capacity. At 50%, "there are probably some ways to get through it, but it will be painful."

For schools already at the minimum 16 sports, finding ways to cut will be even more difficult.

"We are all being significantly affected because of COVID," East Carolina AD Jon Gilbert said. "A lot of schools are anticipating enrollment could be down next year; that means lower student fees. There's record unemployment, and so that means less people that are donating to the annual fund or buying football tickets. It in turn means less scholarship dollars to the institution; less fans in the stands means less concessions that are being bought.

"Some are going to be able to withstand it better than others based on what their reserve is, but others are going to be impacted more quickly."