College Athletics: Multitude of programs sidelined amid pandemic

DAVE PURPURA
dpurpura@thisweeknews.com
Bowling Green baseball player Adam Fallon, a Watterson graduate and infielder/outfielder who is entering his sophomore year, saw his team cut in mid-May before alumni raised $1.5 million to cover operating costs for the next three years. About 1,500 college teams at all levels have been cut or suspended since mid-March, largely because of budgetary issues related to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The news was as sudden as it was devastating for Quinn Patterson.

The 2019 Upper Arlington graduate still doesn't know exactly why the University of Akron cut its men's golf team, more than two months after he woke up May 14 to a text from his coach, David Trainor, saying an emergency Zoom meeting was imminent.

In that meeting, athletics director Larry Williams announced that budget cuts necessitated by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic meant Akron would trim three sports -- men's cross country and women's tennis were the other two -- and in the process force those athletes to determine a future much different from that which they had planned.

"We were devastated," Patterson said of himself, seven teammates and Trainor. "That's life, right? Go through the ups and downs, but this has been tough.

"I still don't have a really clear picture of why it was us, why they had to cut entire teams in general. It's really still unknown."

Akron's cuts totaled $4.4 million, or 23 percent of its athletics budget, and extended beyond the three lost sports, but they also were a part of a larger trend throughout college sports that began early in the pandemic and continues with no end in sight.

As of July 23, 288 teams from Division I to community colleges, 31 of which are in Ohio, had been cut since late March, according to mattalkonline.com. Another 1,217 teams have seen their 2020-21 seasons canceled.

At least 40 athletes from the ThisWeek coverage area have been impacted, although some of them have found new schools at which to compete.

In addition to Akron, other in-state schools that dropped sports were Cincinnati (men's soccer), Notre Dame College (women's tennis), Ohio Wesleyan (women's rowing), Tiffin (equestrian, men's and women's swimming and diving) and Wright State (softball, men's and women's tennis).

Urbana fielded 19 sports when it announced its closure in April.

Columbus State and Cuyahoga, Owens and Sinclair community colleges combined to suspend 21 sports for the 2020-21 academic year.

Women's teams have been more impacted, as 692 female sports were suspended and 143 were cut. On the men's side, 525 teams were suspended and 139 were cut.

The most widely cited reason has been budgetary, spurred by loss of revenue because of the pandemic.

"Universities and higher education are a business and they're struggling," said Dr. Bonnie Tiell, a sports management professor at Tiffin who has been tracking cuts nationally. "This is almost like a reason for athletics directors, presidents (and) administrators to take a really close look at their athletic department and say 'where do we stand as far as budgets go, staff go and number of teams? Where can we cut back?'

"One of the ways they can control that is to eliminate sports teams."

Widespread cuts spare few

No sport has been immune to cuts or suspensions, but non-revenue sports have been particularly hard hit.

Tennis has lost the most teams with 62, ahead of basketball (34), golf (28), soccer (27) and cross country (23). Beach volleyball, polo, rodeo and sailing also are among the sports sacrificed.

Four football teams have been dropped, none of which are in the bowl or championship subdivisions.

"No one wants to cut teams, but these times are leading to some difficult decisions," Tiell said. "I think it's a wave that is going to continue."

Not all cuts have been related to the pandemic.

Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, dropped men's and women's tennis and women's lacrosse March 11, hours before the NBA suspended its season after a positive coronavirus test and one day before all other major pro sports leagues, the Ohio High School Athletic Association and college conferences halted competition.

MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois, announced its closure in early April after 174 years because of declining enrollment, rising competitive costs and insufficient endowments.

Holy Family College in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, officially will close Aug. 29. That accounted for 12 lost teams, two fewer than MacMurray.

Brown downgraded nine sports to club status to enhance competitiveness but promoted men's cross country back to varsity in late June.

After an extended period of financial difficulties, Urbana announced April 21 that it would close at the end of the spring semester. Twenty-three area athletes were affected.

"I was so upset about what happened that I was seriously questioning playing baseball in college. But that's what I've wanted to do for years," said Groveport graduate Trey Mantle, an Urbana baseball recruit who on June 18 committed to Bethany College in West Virginia. "Then we didn't know if there was supposed to be a travel season, so how was I supposed to get my name out there to other schools if I didn't play senior season or summer ball?

"(Committing to a school is) a decision you really can't rush."

At least one program has been saved, however.

Bowling Green dropped baseball May 15 as part of $2 million in cuts but alumni, including former MLB pitcher Orel Hershiser, quickly rallied to raise $1.5 million to fund the program over the next three seasons -- matching the annual amount BG estimated it would save by dropping the sport.

Two Falcons players, Watterson graduate Adam Fallon and Olentangy Orange product Tyler Ross, are from central Ohio.

According to NCAA bylaws, Football Bowl Subdivision schools must maintain at least 16 athletic programs. At least eight must be all-female and at least six must be men's or co-ed.

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave

By the numbers

1,217: Teams at all levels, from Division I to junior colleges, to have their 2020-21 seasons suspended as of July 23.

288: Teams at all levels to be cut as of July 23. Stanford announced July 8 that it will drop 11 sports after the 2020-21 academic year.

62: Tennis teams cut or suspended, making it the sport most impacted.

4: Football teams dropped, at College of the Redwoods, Florida Tech, MacMurray and Urbana. The latter two schools announced their closures in the spring.

Source: mattalkonline.com.

Next week

Area athletes discuss how they dealt with college sports cuts both on a personal level and when it came to deciding their futures, and a look at what might happen next.