Last year, the University of Maryland eliminated a third of its sports teams to help mitigate a budget deficit that had the athletic department borrowing more than $1 million from the institution. (It had planned to cut seven, but one – men’s outdoor track and field – managed to scrounge up enough money to stay alive for at least another season.) A few years before that, the Universities of California at Berkeley and Davis announced they would each drop a handful of teams to save money and help close budget deficits. Now, the swim teams at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington are petitioning to save their sport after a university committee recommended dropping it and three others.
That’s what’s at stake for the Olympic sports – often referred to as non-revenue programs -- at big-time sports universities as athletic departments spend more but institutional funding goes down. At smaller colleges, fundraising has always been critical for all teams just to make ends meet. But many Olympic sports are revving up their efforts and becoming more strategic to create a buffer for institutional budget shortages and avoid fates similar to that of their larger counterparts.
Now, more than ever, there’s cause for concern, athletic officials say. Millersville University, for example, a Division II program in Pennsylvania, last year cut three of its 22 sports.
“What we’re seeing is that it’s becoming apparently difficult for a lot of programs to sustain themselves,” said Matt Donovan, senior associate athletic director for development at the University of Indianapolis. “The day that you can say, ‘Hey, let’s rely on the institution for that'… I think those days are disappearing quickly.”
Compounding the concern for some is the looming class action lawsuit that could require the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its member institutions to compensate athletes for profits earned off their image. That profit – along with the rest of the revenue generated by the big-time sports of football and men’s basketball – is what supports the Olympic teams. Some, including Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany and Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch, have suggested that if the NCAA loses that lawsuit it could trigger divestment or elimination of teams in those sports.
Last month, the United States Olympic Commission teamed up with the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education to host a conference for athletic administrators and coaches at all levels to discuss the importance of fund-raising and strategies for success. CASE puts on an athletic fund-raising conference annually, but this year’s was the first that focused on non-revenue sports.
“We are seeing more institutions looking at fundraising for non-revenue sports more strategically,” said Rae Goldsmith, vice president of advancement resources at CASE. “You do see more of these sports on the chopping block, and more institutions – or often, boosters – in support are coming together when a sport is threatened.”
Fund-raising is nothing new for non-revenue sports, but “the question is whether it’s really been strategic,” Goldsmith said. These days, programs are upping their game in a number of ways – getting coaches more involved in the process, being more collaborative with central development offices, and hiring people who are specifically focused on funding for athletics.
“There needs to be a fund-raising effort that goes to the next level, because what’s happening is not good for the Olympic teams,” said Jeff Dugdale, head men’s and women’s swim coach at Queens University of Charlotte. “I don’t think the fund-raising efforts are being pushed by the administration until it’s too late.”
Theoretically, the athletics "arms race" that is escalating spending at programs across the country should be a good thing for Olympic sports. Although it's driven by football and men's basketball, the spending and revenue that comes from it (through media contracts, ticket sales and the like) is spread across all teams, said Dan L. Fulks, accounting program director at Transylvania University and author of the annual report on NCAA Division I programs' revenues and expenses. However, most of that money goes to coaching salaries, scholarships and facilities (think stadium renovations) -- not particularly helpful for a gymnastics team trying to sustain its operating budget.
In any case, Olympic sport budgets are rising more slowly than those of the revenue sports. While men's and women's basketball operating expenses increased 124 and 97 percent, respectively, from 2003-2012, men's and women's swimming expenses rose only 94 and 74 percent, respectively. Football budgets moved up 110 percent, while wrestling increased just 71 percent. Budgets over all, including all sports, have increased 107 percent for men's and women's teams.
'Don't Come to Us With Your Hand Out'
At Indianapolis, teams used to have no problem – or at least, less of a problem – getting a few extra dollars or budget lines for scoreboards, uniforms and whatnot. But as budgets tightened, administrators grew more reluctant to hand out freebies, Donovan said.
“What they’re basically saying,” he said, “is, don’t come to us with your hand out. You’re going to have to raise money to help sustain yourself but at the same time try to keep yourself at the top.”
Thanks to the economic recession, donors aren’t as willing as they used to be either, Donovan said, and teams have adjusted their strategy accordingly. Coaches took more initiative in fund-raising drives, and started being more specific and targeted about their needs. A volleyball coach might approach an alum who played the sport with a pitch for new nets.
“We’re basically having to say to people, this is exactly what we’re using your dollar for,” Donovan said. “I think a lot of what 2008 told the coaches and the staff is that you’re going to have to really work a lot harder…. You’re going to have to take fund-raising into your daily plan if you want to stay one of the best among the best.”
And they have, Donovan said – more coaches interact with donors (be it through a thank-you note or call with an invitation to the next game) putting to use the cultivation skills that are necessary in recruiting. They also make their own donations to their teams each year – a good way to illustrate the importance of the fund-raising.
Dugdale said lots of coaches have a fear of fund-raising because it’s out of their comfort zone, but it’s going to become more and more crucial to protect their programs as conference expansion drives higher spending and increasingly strained budgets.
Programs might ease the transition by seeking help from a university’s main development office, but making a financial case for your existence doesn’t hurt, either. Sure, football and men’s basketball might attract the most publicity and sell the most tickets, Donovan tells administrators, but they don’t bring in affluent students who pay more tuition, even with scholarships.
Even as athletes and alumni across the country are petitioning universities that drop wrestling, swim, golf and volleyball teams, at the mid-level programs, it’s more about preserving the status quo, said Anita Barker, athletics director at California State University at Chico and president of the Division II Athletic Directors’ Association.
“In my nearly 20 years of athletic administrative experience, fund-raising and development has been a necessity at Division II just to make ends meet,” Barker said via e-mail. “I don’t have a sense that Division II schools are focused on ‘saving’ sports like we see at Division II schools. Most Division II schools must fund-raise to augment their operational and scholarship budgets on an annual basis.”
But now, more coaches and administrators from all three divisions are also thinking more long-term – about how often the American national anthem will be broadcast to the world years from today.
“As sports get cut at universities on the Olympic level, that affects the pipeline of athletes who could potentially be on Team USA,” said Martha Johnson, associate director of fund-raising development at the USOC. “So that’s a thing for everyone to focus on as we try to be more competitive.”
And for athletic staff, unless you’re working at one of the 23 programs that actually turn a profit, balancing funding and expenses to support programs is on your mind, said Stephen Ponder, senior executive associate athletics director at the University of Mississippi and president of the National Association of Athletic Development Directors.
“It’s hitting everyone,” Ponder said. “I don’t have empirical data to show it, but you just hear that. Especially where programs have been cut and then people want to bring the program back – it’s really hard to do that once it’s been cut.”