As athletic departments look for ways to close budget gaps as large as $100 million from the postponement of the fall football season, it seems inevitable deep and controversial cuts are in store.
“This is a real crunch for college sports, and it won’t look the same when we get to the other side,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College.
The most immediate impact is expected for the sports that don’t sell many tickets or draw media revenue—at most schools that means anything besides football, basketball and ice hockey.
In particular, some are concerned women’s sports will suffer because of the historical lack of donor support. In a review of 107 available financial reports of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools for fiscal 2019, 66 schools reported having sports endowment funds restricted by gender (30 don’t have gender-restricted endowments and 11 have no sports endowment). In 2019, endowment income that helped fund men’s sports was $41 million. The amount for women’s athletics was less than one-third that, at $12.9 million.
While schools disclose to the NCAA the income generated by sports endowments, they aren’t required to disclose the size of the endowments themselves. But the income figures suggest that there is more than $1 billion in athletic department endowments dedicated just for men, compared to about $320 million for women.
In many cases, it is far easier to shut down a team that has no dedicated funding than one that does. That’s because endowment funds often come with the parameters that a sport must always be offered or else the school needs to have the donor agree—or a court rule—to do something else with the funds. That makes it harder to pivot athletic endowment money to support women’s sports.
“If you look at old money, if there were restrictions it reflected a male-dominated educational environment. While courts may be willing to invalidate restrictions based on race, they are less likely to override something like gender-specific restrictions that are not clearly illegal under an existing statute,” said Marla Conley, the founding partner of Conley Law Group, which specializes in non-profit organizations and donor gifts.
At the very least, the revenue imbalance will ratchet up the pressure on coaches of women’s teams to help ensure their teams’ survival. “Many times, college administrators look to the coaches and say, ‘You can enhance your budget if you can raise more money from your alumni.’ But the well is shallower for alumni on the women’s athletic side than in the men’s side simply because of the historical trend of what professions they’ve gone into. Women haven’t generally gone to become titans of industry,” says Karen Weaver, a business professor at Drexel University and a former college athletic director and field hockey coach.
Not everyone agrees that women’s sports are easy targets for budget cuts because of Title IX, a 1972 educational reform that forbids discrimination based on gender. In college sports, Title IX requires athletic departments offer sports-playing opportunities in proportion to the gender mix of the student body and must fund male and female athletes equally. As long as football and its 105-man rosters are around, that should guarantee multiple women-only sports.
“Because women don’t have anything as big as or as expensive as football, who loses are a large number of men’s non-revenue sports—and probably some women’s sports if the schools have 25 to 30 sports programs,” said Donna Lopiano, President of Sports Management Resources, a consulting firm to college athletic directors, and a leading expert on gender equality in sports. “If the men want to use up 100 participation slots on one sport, so be it. But you’ve got to figure out how to get 100 participation slots on the women’s side, which is why you get a difference of two or three sports on the women’s side at every FBS institution.”
To date, sports cuts at schools appear to bear that out. Since the pandemic started, a net 142 individual sports have been eliminated by school athletic programs, according to a list compiled by HoopDirt.com. Of those, 76—or 54%—have been men’s programs and 63 women’s sports (three co-ed teams were cut.) While there hasn’t been a Title IX action against athletic departments by the federal government taken under the current administration, it’s unlikely schools would drastically ignore Title IX ahead of the presidential election, Zimbalist said.
In any case, the deep financial stress caused by the pandemic postponing or eliminating sports seasons and their associated revenue streams means budget gaps can’t be closed just by cutting a sport here and there, Zimbalist added.
“Athletics departments are supported by the universities, which are all in dire financial straits. The universities, in turn, are supported by the states, which are in even worse financial straits,” he said. “You’re going to see cuts across the board, not just sports teams.”