Last week Clemson University announced it would discontinue men’s track & field and cross-country, a program that has produced 22 Olympians and won 16 individual NCAA titles.
There have been dozens of Division I programs eliminated this year due to the financial hit of COVID-19, but Clemson’s struck a particular nerve. The South Carolina school has won two football national titles in the past four years, part of a dynastic run that has seen its athletics budget swell from $75 million in 2014 to $132 million in 2019. The school recently opened a new football practice facility with a slide, bowling alleys and a mini-golf course, and head coach Dabo Swinney is paid more than $8 million per year.
In an open letter to the track community, Tigers athletic director Dan Radakovich said the department expected to save more than $2 million per year by eliminating the track program—a savings that over the long term will help other Olympic sports on campus. Though financial details were sparse at the time, spokesman Jeff Kallin explained the school’s analysis to arrive at that number.
Offered at Clemson since 1953, men’s track & field/cross-country currently has 51 athletes, half of which share about 12 total scholarships. The program was listed on the athletic department’s books as having $1,304,023 in total revenue and $2,251,751 in total expenses in 2019. That’s a deficit of $947,728.
While that’s less than half of the estimated $2 million in savings, there are specifics on how the Tigers manage their books that explain the numbers in more detail. For starters, the track team’s biggest revenue line item is donations. That’s not alumni contributions to the team, but rather the amount that IPTAY, an outside 501(c)(3) that functions as the athletic department’s booster club, pays for its scholarships. The school says that without a men’s track team, that money would be used elsewhere, for other scholarships or costs like academic services and sports medicine.
The $135,000 licensing revenue line is similar. That comes from the school’s wider agreement with Nike, Kallin said, which doesn’t include team-specific payments. That money would also get redistributed if the track team were no longer around.
Lastly, the $418,189 in institutional support isn’t a cash benefit, it’s a waiver given by the school to the athletic department to get the scholarship “costs” closer to the in-state price. The better way to think about that waiver is that the athletic department’s scholarships costs aren’t $1,003,721, but rather $585,532, the exact amount covered by IPTAY.
Recasting all these numbers, Clemson is left with a budget for the program that looks more like the below. Men’s track and cross-country, according to the school, actually generates $165,302 of revenue, almost all of which comes from NCAA distributions and entry-fees for track events that it hosts.
On the expense side, the main change is the scholarship price. It doesn’t hit the Clemson books at $1,003,721, but rather $585,532. The end result is a men’s track and cross-country program that runs an annual deficit of nearly $1.7 million per year. That’s still short of the $2 million Radakovich mentioned in his letter, but Kallin said the athletic department also expects to save in other places as a result of having 51 fewer athletes.
There are important caveats to the school’s interpretation of the numbers. The Clemson athletic department operates independently from the university, and this accounting doesn’t consider the effect these changes have on the school as a whole. With 14.61 scholarships spread across more than 50 athletes, there’s a whole chunk of tuition paid by the track and cross-country team’s athletes. Even if those slots are filled with non-athlete students, it’s possible those students will be paying less to attend Clemson than the athletes they replaced.
Secondly, there are other costs in the “expenses” column, which likely won’t be entirely eliminated with the men’s track team. The program shares coaches with the women’s program, which is unaffected by the cuts. Salary or position reductions likely won’t drop by 50%.
There there’s the issue of scholarship costs as a whole, often a semi-arbitrary number that isn’t actually indicative of the actual cost of attending. Clemson, for example, lists the full sticker price of its men’s track and cross-country scholarships at $68,700, more than $10,000 above the full cost of attending the school (Kallin said the higher number includes benefits like summer school and summer housing).
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, is the less financially-tangible benefit of offering a variety of opportunities to a diverse set of students. Not everything the school or athletic department offers to students is a profit-making endeavor; they just have to choose which of those costs they’re willing to bear. Men’s track and cross-country is unfortunately no longer one of those things.