The COVID-19 pandemic has led some of the country’s richest schools, and its most successful athletic departments, to eliminate sports as a cost-cutting measure. One New Jersey school is doing the opposite.
Last week, Fairleigh Dickinson University announced it was adding men’s volleyball. On Tuesday, the school will announce the addition of women’s lacrosse. The two teams will add around 58 new athletes to the athletic department—a 23% increase—and as the school sees it, attract more paying students to its dorms and classrooms.
Though these sports generate little revenue, and in fact will add “hundreds of thousands” in expenses to a roughly $14 million athletics budget, the school still believes it will come out ahead from a cash standpoint, according to athletic director Brad Hurlbut.
“Most universities, especially universities our size, are looking for additional students,” Hurlbut said in an interview. “This is a perfect way to bring additional students to the campus, and fill up dorms. And athletes graduate at a much higher percentage than the general student body, so it helps there too.”
Eliminating programs has become a trend during the pandemic. In July, Stanford announced it was dropping 11 varsity sports. Clemson later eliminated its men’s track and cross country teams. In total, 93 Division I programs have been eliminated since March, affecting 1,459 athletes, according to one online database.
Fairleigh Dickinson is taking an approach championed by a number of economists, who believe “non-revenue” sports are actually cash-positive for many schools. Athletic departments, the thinking goes, often don’t account for the money that non-scholarship athletes pay in tuition, because that money appears on a different balance sheet. For schools that are under-enrolled, smaller sports attract students that likely wouldn’t otherwise come and might be difficult to replace.
Fairleigh Dickinson’s men’s volleyball team will add 15 to 18 athletes, but the NCAA allows no more than 4.5 total scholarships across the entire roster. The women’s lacrosse team will have 35 to 40 athletes, with a scholarship limit of 12. Taking the middle of each roster estimate, and using the school’s pandemic-discounted tuition, that could mean an extra $1.2 million in paid tuition from these two sports.
Hurlbut said the department has also asked its coaches to try adding more recruited walk-ons to their programs, which might help in a similar fashion.
There were other financial considerations for the university as well. The addition of men’s volleyball, for example, was bolstered by a $200,000 grant the school received from the First Point Volleyball Foundation.
In addition, both sports have a big footprint in the Northeast, which should keep travel costs down, and neither team needs new facilities. Fairleigh Dickinson already has a women’s volleyball team, which plays in its basketball arena. The women’s lacrosse team will play in the same stadium as the school’s two soccer teams.
These calculations only make sense for a school, like Fairleigh Dickinson, which has dorm rooms sitting empty and space in its classrooms. Hurlbut spent 17 years at Northwestern, a school with more competitive admissions, and joked that this approach wouldn’t have worked there.
“If we can add additional student-athletes on campus, at a tuition rate that exceeds our expenses, that’s going to allow us to succeed financially,” Hurlbut said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”