Chapter 6: Cost containment, then and now

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Just about every athletics program, no matter what its budget, has been in cost-containment and budget-cutting modes over the past year. Such budget trimming has intensified as the national recession deepened. A day does not go by, it seems, when an athletics department or conference is not laying off staff members, reducing travel costs, or rethinking how to conduct postseason tournaments with fewer dollars.

Few in academe will be sympathetic, as the downturn has caused layoffs at institutions of all sizes and missions, as well as furloughs and delays in new projects and cutbacks in old ones. Notably, neither in academics nor in athletics are many institutions stepping back to look at enterprise-level changes that would make the cost structure more manageable.

A day does not go by, it seems, when an athletics department or conference is not laying off staff members, reducing travel costs, or rethinking how to conduct postseason tournaments with fewer dollars.

This is not to say that athletics programs have not made significant cuts. According to various media reports: Rice University trimmed its athletic budget 10 percent; Conference USA reduced the number of football players on its traveling squads; Iowa State cut a chartered flight to a football game, downsizing to bus travel and an international men’s basketball excursion was eliminated (Cross, 2009); Florida State cut its men’s basketball travel budget by $256,000 (Carter, 2009); Stanford, among the nation’s richest institutions with the broadest sports offerings, must cut more than $7 million from its athletics budget over the next two years (Schlabach, 2009).

Nationwide, athletic administration jobs are being eliminated or left unfilled; printed media relations materials are being abandoned for less-expensive Web-based sports information. In some cases, such as the University of Cincinnati and the University of Washington (Belson, 2009), non-revenue sports have lost scholarship support or been dropped completely. At the beginning of the 2009 football season, the sports budget trims continued nationwide with no end in sight.

To a certain extent, history is repeating itself. “N.C.A.A. Seeking Way to Cut Budget" reads a headline from the April 29, 1975, New York Times (White, 1975). It was about a “Special Meeting on Economy in Intercollegiate Athletics” convened by the NCAA. Cost-cutting legislation and the need to do something “severe” and not “cosmetic” were on the agenda. Among the cuts then: A limit on 105 football scholarships per university was reduced to 95.

Fifteen years later, in 1990, the NCAA convened a “Special Committee on Cost Reduction” that led to trimming men’s scholarships in all sports by 10 percent, dropping football to 85 scholarships. A limit on the salaries of the fourth assistant basketball coach at Division I programs also was approved (NCAA News, 1990). (Later, that was ruled a violation of federal antitrust laws, and a jury awarded a class of coaches $54.5 million to be paid by the NCAA.)

The reason for the national moves in 1975 and 1990 was the reluctance of individual athletics programs to contain their costs unilaterally. Andy Geiger, who served as athletics director at the University of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Stanford and Ohio State, was a member of the 1990 NCAA cost-containment task force. He said recently that efforts then to reduce costs were done “collectively, which is the only way this effort of cost reduction could happen. We all have to agree and figure out a way to do it.”

In 2009, conferences have taken the lead on promoting cost containment, creating new travel arrangements, eliminating in-person “media days” for coaches and athletes, and promoting other policies to reduce costs without putting member teams at competitive disadvantages with one another. However, there appear to have been few, if any, substantive changes to the way college athletic programs do business in the current climate. The two exceptions might be Birmingham-Southern College and Centenary College of Louisiana, whose boards voted to drop from Division I to Division III. Neither was a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision, but other universities have pondered a similar move in recent years.