Cutting sports a growing trend at major colleges

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 21, 2013 at 3:27 pm •  Published: December 21, 2013
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The field hockey program, one the Colonials are cutting, went 11-8 this fall but is one of the few Division I programs in the country that doesn't practice or play on an artificial surface. The substandard facilities makes scheduling difficult.

"It's like having the ice hockey team practicing on slush," Coleman said.

With no plans or money to build a state-of-the-art field and a travel budget stretched to the limit, the school felt it would be easier cut field hockey entirely. Coleman said several field hockey players are in the process of transferring, one of the reasons Robert Morris announced the decision early.

Coleman pledges to invest the estimated $1-1.3 million the school will save when the students for the six eliminated sports are off the books to beefing up the recruiting and travel budgets for the remaining sports, including a men's basketball program that upset mighty Kentucky in the NIT last spring. The victory, complete with a court-storming at the final buzzer, gave the school the kind of splashy public relations boost Olympic sports can't provide.

It's that way across the board in college athletics, where football and men's basketball are typically the engines that drive the budget. Yet even with television money pouring into power conferences, the price of keeping up with the big boys is steep.

In 2012, the cost of operating a Division I football program rose 10.8 percent according to the NCAA. At the same time, revenue rose only 4.6 percent. The declining profit margin — if the program is profitable at all — combined with the shifting conference affiliation landscape is putting some schools in a bind. But with belt-tightening on college campuses becoming more widespread even as tuition levels jump at an exponential rate, athletic departments are no longer immune.

Rutgers was ahead of the curve when it dropped six sports in 2007, most to help offset a university-wide $80.7 million shortfall. The cuts had little long-term effect on the health of the athletic department. Rutgers athletics spent $28.7 million more than it made in 2011, with the school taking money from its general fund and student fees to cover the rest.

Meanwhile, the results on the field have been middling at best. The Scarlet Knights have gone a respectable 53-36 with six bowl appearances in football since 2007 and attendance at High Point Solutions Stadium has averaged more than 45,000, better than it was 15 years ago but still short of the new seating capacity of 52,454 that came with a $102 million expansion completed in 2009.

The men's basketball team continues to struggle and is dealing with the ugly fallout from former coach Mike Rice's bumpy tenure. The women's basketball team, a national power at times under C. Vivian Stringer, has seen attendance drop by more than half since 2007-08.

Things are even more dire at Temple. The football program, which moved from the Mid-American Conference back to the Big East (the remnants of which are now called the American Athletic Conference), averaged just 22,473 fans this year at cavernous Lincoln Financial Field, an NFL stadium that houses the Philadelphia Eagles. And with the AAC no longer guaranteed a spot in one of college football's marquee bowls next season (and the $17 million payout that comes with it) lean times could get even leaner.

A major factor is the increased cost of travel. The AAC now spreads from Connecticut to Texas. It's not just the football team making those trips. Most of the 15 other sports that will stick around need to play in Houston, Memphis and Florida too.

Clark maintains even with mediocre attendance and even more miserable results, football prevents the athletic department from being subsidized entirely by the university. Deputy athletic director Pat Craft said the athletic department was "limping along" on a $44 million budget spread across 24 sports. Going down to 17 will leave Temple in line with most other AAC schools.

Not that it provides much solace to Eigner. Sure he could explore a transfer, but when Temple is gone there will be only 16 Division I men's gymnastics programs remaining. Finding a landing spot will be difficult. The Owls begin their final season of competition on Jan. 17, 2014.

"Obviously an opportunity has been taken away from us," he said. "We're trying not to think about it too much if that makes sense. We can only control what we can control. This sport is really who we are."

Or, as of July 1, 2014, who they were.

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Associated Press writer Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia and Christina Alameida in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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