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Headlines: The Financial Health of College Athletics and BC

Brian: … and we’re back.

Because BC is a private institution, it is somewhat unclear – to me, anyway – how the athletic department is performing financially in this economic environment. However, all around the college athletics landscape, schools are reporting significant losses and threatening to cut programs.

Our neighbors across the Charles River, M.I.T., the largest athletics department in the country, announced that they would be reducing the number of varsity sports from 41 to 33. Alpine Skiing, Golf, Men’s Ice Hockey, Women’s Ice Hockey, Men’s Gymnastics, Women’s Gymnastics, Pistol and Wrestling are all getting the axe.

College baseball programs across New England are shuttering their doors as well. Following Vermont’s announcement that they would be discontinuing both baseball and softball after 2009, UMass announced that they would be possibly cutting their baseball program. Over the past few years, baseball has been cut at other New England schools for budget reasons, including New Hampshire, Boston University and Providence.

Every few days there seems to be a story about a college athletics department trying to make up budget deficits by either cutting programs or coming up with creative ways to manage the shortfall.

Taking a look around the ACC, North Carolina is instituting a hiring freeze in its athletics department, eliminating overtime pay, and chartering smaller planes for team travel. NC State has switched to traveling by bus to Virginia Tech instead of chartering a plane. The U has cancelled flights and instead opted to charter a bus to both their South Florida and Central Florida away games next season. Florida State’s president T.K. Wetherell has discussed considering using pay cuts and unpaid vacation to close its budget gap. The Seminoles deficit reportedly stands at over $5 million.

In Knoxville, Tennessee charged $5 to its spring football scrimmage for the first time. The Vols under first year coach Lane Kiffen drew 51,488 to their game on April 18. (Although not sure BC wants to take up this practice as they might see their spring attendance figures fall even lower than 2,000).

And finally, since we were just there, here’s a novel idea out of Las Vegas. UNLV held a garage sale of athletic apparel and equipment that netted them $50,000. The Rebels sold apparel made by adidas, Russell, and New Balance as their athletics programs are switching to Nike. This is a great idea and I hope Gene is reading. Not only does this tap yet another revenue source, but it would also give fans access to authentic BC athletics gear, which I know many fans are craving.

What sort of trickle-down effect some of these cost-cutting measures will have on BC athletics remains to be seen. However, I would imagine we are only going to hear more bad news from athletics departments across the country during the offseason.

For instance, what does decreased local competition in college baseball mean for BC in the short term? Likely more out of conference games during the week where the Eagles have to jump on a plane or travel farther by bus to compete. What happens to the Baseball Beanpot without UMass?

Most of the Hockey East schools have remained largely silent about the financial health of their athletics department so far, but you have to start wondering about some of these smaller schools that compete in Hockey East like UMass-Lowell and Merrimack. College hockey is one of the most expensive sports to sponsor.

NC State can easily decide to charter a bus instead of a private plane for their basketball and football trips to Blacksburg, but BC doesn’t have the same sort of opportunity to save on travel costs.

One thing is clear – with 31 varsity sports (the most in the ACC and over twice the number of varsity sports sponsored by the U) and some of the furthest distances to travel in the conference – Gene and the school are going to have to get fairly creative if the athletics department starts to produce a budget deficit. I would hate to see BC cut a varsity sport. I am optimistic that a school like BC could weather the storm better than most schools, but a major BCS program cutting varsity sports may not be unprecedented in this environment, as could be the case at a program like Oregon State. In Corvallis, the message is clear: "Unless donor dollars increase, some minor sports might disappear."

The financial health of college sports and athletic departments balance sheets in the near term may prove to be a larger challenge for Gene than the move from the Big East to the ACC.