Last week, Stanford announced that the coming season — if there is a season — will be the last for eleven of the school’s sports teams: men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball, and wrestling.
Many inside and outside the university fumed about the decision, pointing out that Stanford has an endowment of $27.7 billion as of last summer. But regardless of the wisdom of the cuts, Stanford is representative of perhaps 100 colleges and universities with lucrative football and/or basketball programs, all of which are now facing an unparalleled funding crisis as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournament this March cost schools a projected $375 million in revenue. The outlook for college football this autumn is foggy. Some conferences have already announced a limited schedule that dispenses with non-conference games to reduce the amount of travel. If all non-conference games are canceled, schools will lose about $160 million.
Football cannot be played in a manner that does not involve some risk of spreading the coronavirus. Players not only come within six feet of one another, they line up inches apart, breathing heavily, and then crash into each other, play after play after play. Coaches yell, the quarterback audibles, players stand close together on the sidelines. Maybe an exceptionally thorough system of rapid tests could mitigate the spread, with players being scratched and isolated immediately after testing positive. But that is easier said than done in a sport with such large rosters and coaching staffs, and little else has proven easy in this pandemic so far.
Big-time college-sports programs bring in gobs of money from ticket sales, luxury boxes, stadium-naming rights, television contracts, concessions, and merchandise. Right now, fans are not likely to be gathering in the stands at college-football games as they usually do, which necessarily closes off many of those revenue streams. If all of the games are canceled outright, the biggest stream of all — television revenue — will go away as well.
The “Power Five” conferences — the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference — comprise 65 universities, among them most, though not quite all, of the top-tier college-football programs in the country. The television revenue for college football alone is jaw-dropping: ESPN paid $470 million per year just for broadcast rights to the college-football playoff, and as recently as the beginning of this year was said to be hammering out a $300-million-per-year deal with the Southeastern Conference to broadcast its games. USA Today calculates that college football generates at least $4.1 billion in fiscal-year revenue for the athletics departments at the 50-plus public schools in the Power Five conferences, or an average of more than $78 million per school. Most of these schools budgeted for the coming year with the expectation that that money would be there. Now, much or all of it won’t be.
For a long time, even fans of college sports wondered if it was a good idea for so many institutions of higher education to turn their sports teams into de facto developmental programs for the NFL and NBA. It’s easy to see why so many schools did so, of course. At the highest levels, college football and basketball offer fan experiences on par with the NFL or NBA. They stir campus enthusiasm, provide hours of free advertising, and of course, bring in enormous amounts of money each fall and winter, helping cover the costs of other college sports that don’t bring in enormous revenues.
More than a few observers noted, however, that the entire system was built upon young men, often from poor backgrounds, who chose to risk a career-ending injury in exchange for a college scholarship and, maybe, a chance at a lucrative career as a professional. Some schools took educating student athletes seriously; others, not so much. As collegiate basketball and football scandals piled up, it became less and less absurd to ask whether big-time athletic programs existed to serve the needs of universities or universities existed to serve the needs of big-time athletic programs.
Those concerns have become more pressing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and a day of reckoning may now be coming for college sports. If Stanford, with the fourth-largest endowment in the country, cannot sustain its less-prominent sports programs, how many other colleges will end up making similar cuts? How many students will lose their athletic scholarships in the process? If, as seems likely, the answer to both questions is “many,” the NCAA landscape will soon look dramatically different, with fewer sports, fewer teams, fewer scholarships, and fewer student-athletes.
That, in turn, will hurt the institutions that rely most heavily on athletics for revenue, forcing them to shrink their budgets and possibly rethink their business models. The law professor and blogger Glenn Reynolds, among others, has for years now been warning about a “higher-education bubble” that is inflating and likely to pop. America’s educators built their colleges and universities upon a rickety foundation: an apparently unshakable faith that rising high-schoolers and their parents would always find a four-year degree a valuable investment, no matter how exorbitant the tuition became. The gargantuan revenues of college athletics had until now helped to shore up that weak foundation, and suddenly they seem to be disappearing. The fallout is not likely to be pretty.