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Are schools like Nevada laying the groundwork for cutting sports?

Legacy Hall
Legacy Hall on Nevada's campus. (Nevada athletics)

While television revenue and coaching salaries have skyrocketed over the last decade, scholarship opportunities have not as athletic departments across the nation have largely frozen the number of programs on campus and in some cases dropped sports in the previous 10 years.

That stabilization has happened in halcyon economic times with athletic departments revenues being at an all-time high, in large part because of television money. But the spread of the coronavirus has already cost NCAA members hundreds of millions of dollars with the loss of the NCAA men's and women's tournaments, as well as the spring sport championships, and that could be just the beginning. If a college football season is lost, the nationally cuts could be historic.

Cincinnati just shuttered it men's soccer program and Old Dominion cut wrestling earlier this month. That could be the tip of the iceberg in limiting scholarship opportunities. Yahoo! Sports' Pete Thamel reported Tuesday the Group of Five, which includes Nevada's conference, the Mountain West, sent a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert outlining the potential of canceling postseason conference tournaments and shortening seasons in non-revenue sports.

But the major headline from the letter was the MW, American Athletic, Conference USA, MAC and Sun Belt asking for a temporary NCAA change in the number of required sports on campus. Per Yahoo! Sports' report:

"The letter asks for 'temporary relief from several regulatory requirements for a period of up to four years' in order to provide 'short-term relief.' The letter hopes that this relief will provide 'opportunity for institutions to retrench and rebuild the financial structures of the institution.' The requirements the conference commissioners asked for relief from hint at the fiscal peril of schools and leagues outside college athletics’ so-called Power Five. The most relevant among them is relief from the minimum number of 'Sports Sponsorships,' as every FBS school is required to have a 'minimum number of 16 varsity intercollegiate sports.'

Nevada is currently at that minimum number with six men's teams and nine women's teams (with track and field counting as an indoor and outdoor sport getting Nevada to 16 teams overall). The Wolf Pack's financial situation was already tenuous with the department being in the red more often than the black every fiscal year. The loss of a football season, or even the non-conference portion of the year, would be a crushing blow. For example, Nevada is scheduled to get $1.5 million to play at Arkansas in September, which helps fund more than just the football program. If that game was cut and only a conference season was played, which has been discussed, it'd have a ripple effect.

MW commissioner Craig Thompson released a statement Tuesday after the Yahoo! Sports report was released. It read:

“We have been working closely with our membership for the past few weeks developing potential options to address the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Other conferences are engaged in the same process and this collaborative request from the Group of Five is intended as the sort of creative alternative these unprecedented times demand. The waivers of NCAA legislation would create a permissive environment, allowing each institution and conference across the Division I landscape the necessary flexibility to determine how best to proceed in making financial adjustments which are intended to preserve sports and opportunities for student-athletes.”

Among the other requests from the Group of 5, per Yahoo! Sports, were waiving football attendance requirements and lowering the minimum number of games played in varying sports and decreasing financial-aid requirements (schools are required to issue at least 200 athletics grants-in-aids or expend at least $4 million on grants-in-aid to student-athletes). Thompson told Thamel "our intent is to maintain the same level of sports sponsorships." That's good news, even if the number of scholarships within the sports is decreased. Thompson has made it clear these conferences would like to reduce the financial lift of non-revenue sports (fewer games, less travel, no postseason tournaments, lower scholarship requirements) rather than cutting teams all together.

The Group of 5 seems to be bracing for the worst-case scenario, writing in its letter to the NCAA:

"As you are aware, the COVID-19 pandemic and resultant economic turmoil has resulted in the direst financial crisis for higher education since at least the Great Depression. Institutions are attempting to manage unanticipated shortfalls in revenue and the need in many cases to provide refunds. Among the financial challenges being faced include significant decreases in state appropriations, substantial losses in endowment value and a downturn in philanthropic activity."

Outside of football and men's basketball, programs bleed money, some at Nevada by seven figures a year. Even football has been hit and miss at breaking even for the Wolf Pack. Lessening that deficit in the non-revenue sports while preserving as many programs seems to be the Group of 5's goal, and the power-conference schools won't have it easy, either, although its television revenue offers more margin for error.

The NCAA allowing Group of 5 schools to dip under the current minimum requirement of 16 sports seems like a slippery slope. It may just be me, but it seems unlikely a sport that is cut this offseason would actually return in the following four-year period that is being requested unless made mandatory by the NCAA. A lot of times, it is out of sight, out of mind, which has been the case with Nevada skiing, which was cut the late 2000s and has tried to return as a Division I sport several times without much progress.

It's not like a coach of a sport that's been cut is going to stick around three or four years to get his or her job back. And it's not easy rebuilding a roster once a program has been shuttered. I'd be much more open to cutting coaching pay temporarily to save student-athlete scholarships, although that's easier to say when I'm not the one taking a pay cut. A 10 percent cut in pay across the board for Wolf Pack coaches and the AD seat would net about $560,000 annually, enough to fund a decent amount of scholarships. It might save a colleague's job and sport, too.

Nobody wants to cut programs. It's the toughest decision any athletic director can make, and each of Nevada's last three ADs have done so (Chris Ault with men's cross country and track and field; Cary Groth with men's and women's skiing and Doug Knuth with rifle). But it appears deep cuts are coming nationally. Even in the good economic times, we saw fewer scholarships being made available as salaries for coaches and administrators got more and more bloated. We're about to hit some pretty meager economic times. Not every sport is going to survive. It's just a matter of how many get cut, not if they get cut.

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