'Curriculum Review' for Athletics

October 4, 2010

When campus budgets are tight and athletics departments are under the microscope, college and university administrators use a variety of methods to determine which teams to cut and which to keep. Some look at downsizing from a purely financial perspective, cutting sports that cost the most to operate, either overall or on a per-athlete basis. Others consider the win-loss records and popularity of their teams, trimming those it seems few on their campus will miss. That all goes to say that there is no tried-and-true method for determining a sport’s value to an institution.

To try to take some of the guesswork out of answering this question, the Austen Group, research consultants that work with colleges and education associations, have introduced the Austen Sports Index (ASI).

Photo: The Austen Group

A screenshot of the Austen Sports Index in use.

Using data analysis of everything from athletics scholarships offered to grades earned by athletes to interest in a sport from prospective students, the ASI scores athletic programs and their individual teams on a 7-point scale, taking into account key areas such as demand, cost effectiveness, enrollment effects and community contribution. Scores of 6 or 7 indicate, according to the consultants, “a strong program contributing substantially to the institution.” Scores of 1 or 2, on the other hand, indicate underperformers that either need immediate improvement or should be cut entirely.

College officials can use this tool to investigate and look through all of the subsets of data used to determine an overall score, comparing sports to one another. Eventually, as more institutions are assessed by the ASI, officials will be able to compare how their institution -- particularly its sports -- compares statistically to peer institutions and others around the country.

Nate Mouttet, vice president of the Austen Group, said he believes his organization is helping to “fill a void” in the world of intercollegiate athletics, noting that administrators do not have a “national database of comparative data” at their fingertips when assessing their sports teams. While he is aware that the tool can be used to identify teams to trim from athletics programs, he said there is value in keeping consistent track of teams' value to an institution.

“Our goal is to help administrators maximize their athletics programs, not necessarily cut them,” said Mouttet, noting that the service starts at $2,500 per institution and increases based on enrollment. “If we gather comparative data, then perhaps you could say, 'We could run volleyball or baseball more efficiently or finance it differently than we have in the past now that we know what our peers are doing.' When I’ve talked to presidents, they’ve often just cobbled together reports from various sources, and they just don’t have an apples-to-apples comparison from college to college or even sport to sport. Ideally, this becomes an ongoing measurement of the vitality of a program, although it could be used in a survival scenario.”

So far, only two institutions are using the ASI: Bethany College, in Kansas, and Hastings College, in Nebraska. Though the tool is being marketed to all types of institutions, these two small liberal arts colleges are likely indicative of its target users: tuition-driven institutions that offer partial athletic scholarships, are in either the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division II or the low-profile National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), and rely on sports participation to meet enrollment goals.

Still, Mouttet said he was struck by the timeliness of the ASI’s rollout in light of the recent news that the University of California at Berkeley, a major Division I institution, is planning to cut five sports to save nearly $4 million from its deficit-ridden athletics program.

Photo: The Austen Group

A screenshot of the Austen Sports Index in use.

“It’s not that this data couldn’t have been gathered on its own, it’s that no one has gathered it in this way and there’s not been this apples-to-apples comparison to be objective on things,” Mouttet said. “Maybe someone’s turned sour on a sports team; this could show that it actually has accomplished what it should. On the other hand, it can make someone look at a sacred cow through a different lens, particularly when it’s compared to those at other institutions.”

Phil Dudley, president of Hastings College, said he simply wanted to assess the teams within his athletics program in much the same way he assesses the different academic departments on his campus. And, at his college, athletics is not an afterthought; it may even be something nearing life-or-death for the college's enrollment. Hastings has about 1,100 undergraduates, and nearly 50 percent of them participate in intercollegiate athletics. Hastings sponsors 19 sports.

“There’s all kinds of research looking at curriculum costs, there’s hardly any looking at efficiency and cost effectiveness of aspects of athletics programs,” Dudley said. “For instance, if we were to look at eliminating a sport and we wanted to find out what would happen if we eliminated men’s and women’s soccer, we could see, well, that takes out 35 students for each team and this much money. So, even if it cuts costs, where are you going to get those 35 students? It helps you if you have to make those decisions, and I think institutions want to share that with one another.”

Photo: The Austen Group

A screenshot of the Austen Sports Index in use.

Dudley said he is actively lobbying his conference, the Great Plains Athletic Conference, and the rest of the NAIA to convince their members to use the ASI. He added that, with more comparative data, institutions could learn how to get the most out of their athletics programs, especially during today’s tough economic times.

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