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Cutting Ohio State sports amid budget woes may not save much money

Adam Jardy
ajardy@dispatch.com
The Columbus Dispatch

The women’s volleyball team at Ohio State had been playing for 12 years before the Big Ten decided to offer the sport to its members, and the Buckeyes’ 24 NCAA Tournament appearances are more than all but three conference teams.

The OSU program is one of the original 10 members of the conference, has placed 10 alumni into the university’s athletic hall of fame and is older than 12 of Ohio State’s 17 women’s sports teams.

So first-year women’s volleyball coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg knows, at least, that her program’s place in the annals of the Ohio State athletic department is secure.

And yet, in the current climate of economic uncertainty in the face of a global pandemic, there’s an element of apprehension lodged in the back of her mind.

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Ohio State is facing a revenue loss of up to $130.3 million without a fall football season, according to an official projection released by the university last week. How it will go about making up that difference and forging ahead with all 36 of its varsity sports is an open question.

So, in short, is Oldenburg worried for the future of her sport? And what of her fellow Olympic-sport coaches?

“I feel like if I said ‘no,’ I’d be lying or fooling myself,” Oldenburg recently told The Dispatch. “I feel that volleyball is one of the premier sports in college athletics, so it makes me feel a little bit more comfortable.

“But this pandemic has gone on longer than anybody has anticipated. You don’t know what that’s going to mean years down the road.”

Like all universities during the pandemic, Ohio State’s athletic department has felt the budget pain. Unlike some other Power Five conference schools, though, including Big Ten member Iowa and NCAA power Stanford, OSU has not yet dropped any varsity sports.

Eliminating college sports is not a new phenomenon, just as budget crunches aren’t new to athletic departments. But just because cutting a sport when athletic department finances hit hard times is one of the first talking points, that doesn’t mean it’s a particularly good idea.

B. David Ridpath, associate professor of sports business at Ohio University, said there are multiple other options for cost-cutting before eliminating a sport. That’s especially true at Ohio State, where an athletic department staff directory lists more than 600 positions.

“They have a rifle team, synchronized swimming, and those sports are important whether people think they are or not,” Ridpath said. “I will tell you that they are a piddly part of that budget. At the risk of having the fear of Buckeye Nation attack me, you could probably cut $5 million out of football and nobody would notice.”

In addition to the fact that getting rid of any sport would need to fall in line with Title IX regulations, eliminating teams doesn’t save the university as much as might be assumed. Most athletes participating in Olympic sports are on either partial scholarship or none at all, meaning many are paying full tuition in order to compete.

For the 2019 fiscal year, Ohio State’s field hockey program had $1,458,752 in expenses and generated $124,981 in revenue, a deficit of just north of $1.3 million. But the sport received only 11.41 scholarships for its 26 participants, meaning 14.59 members of the team were responsible for full tuition.

The average of in- and out-of-state tuition living either on or off campus came to $39,448 for that year, so members of the field hockey team paid roughly $575,546 to the university in tuition fees.

Eliminate the program, and the net savings are around $725,000.

“Most of those kids, and they are nationally competitive, are not on a full scholarship,” Ridpath said. “They’re paying some money to Ohio State. You’re not just saving a few hundred thousand dollars, you’re also losing money in tuition revenues for the school.”

Ohio State’s athletic department is self-sustaining, with the majority of its income coming from football. Those revenues figure to return in short order, assuming the eventual end to the pandemic, which Ridpath said would make applying for short-term financial loans a relatively cheap, low-risk option as a stopgap.

Some schools, however, see no option but to trim sports.

Iowa announced on Aug. 21 that it was cutting men’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming and diving and men’s tennis. In an open letter, university president Bruce Harreld and athletic director Gary Barta said the cancellation of the football season will result in $100 million of lost revenue and an overall athletic department deficit of $60 million to $75 million this fiscal year.

The letter noted that the athletic department had instituted budget cuts, including reductions in compensation, operations and position eliminations, but they were not enough.

But how much was really saved by cutting the programs? According to HawkCentral.com, the total expenses of the four sports add up to roughly $4.25 million for the 2019 fiscal year and figure doesn’t take into account the money paid to the university by athletes not on scholarship.

At Nebraska, no sports are being cut, but 51 athletic department staff members will be furloughed from Sept. 1 through the end of the year, and the remainder of the department will take a 10% pay cut during the same period.

Throughout the pandemic, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith has said his aim is to keep all varsity sports programs, but has alluded to the need for cost-cutting.

“We’re a program that has 36 (teams), and that has been a pride point for our athletic department,” women’s soccer coach Lori Walker-Hock said. “But I definitely am fearful that changes would happen within our department.”

The effects of cutting a program go beyond the financial impact, too. Former University of Akron middle-distance runner Clayton Murphy, who won a bronze medal in the 800 meters at the 2016 Olympics, cut ties with his alma mater in July after the school eliminated the men’s cross country team.

At Ohio State, cutting any sport would sever ties with alumni stretching back decades.

“I understand the financial hit that’s been taken, so something has to give,” said Khadevis Robinson, coach of Ohio State’s men’s and women’s cross country teams. “Do I worry about the sport? Yes, from a collegiate stance, from an NCAA stance. I wonder how it’s going to look moving forward.”

That wonder — or concern — is shared by many within and around the athletic department. The coming weeks and months figure to feature plenty of belt-tightening for the Buckeyes, but Ridpath said Ohio State is able to operate from a position of strength, given its brand loyalty and the promise of an eventual return to full competition.

“I do think that they have the flexibility to withstand what they’re going through right now and be able to keep all the sports,” he said. “They have such a large budget that they can tweak it and be fine.

“It would be tough for Ohio State to drop any sport. I think the Buckeyes will be fine.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

Brian Wright, a first-year assistant coach for the Ohio State women's volleyball team, directs a recent workout at the Covelli Center.