Stanford University, which has built the most successful broad-based athletic department in the country, said today that its model was financially unsustainable in part because of the coronavirus pandemic and that it would permanently drop 11 sports to help offset what it projected would be at least a $70 million deficit over the next three years.
The pandemic has already begun to expose cracks in the financial models of many universities, with schools like Akron, Brown and Cincinnati dropping sports, others like Oklahoma and Iowa instituting pay cuts and budget cuts, and the marketing behemoth Learfield IMG College notifying dozens of schools that it would be months late on its payments to universities.
But Stanford’s decision is likely to send ripples through the college sports world.
Thus far, no schools have dropped as many sports, and Stanford is one of the wealthiest universities in the country, sitting on an endowment that was valued at $26.5 billion as recently as last year.
And the sports that will be dropped after the next academic year are hardly floundering — they have combined to produce 20 national championships and 27 Olympic medalists. It is the success of sports like rowing, sailing, fencing, field hockey, squash, synchronized swimming, wrestling and men’s volleyball that helped Stanford win the NCAA Director’s Cup, which awards overall athletic excellence, for the 25th time in a row last year.
But the school, which made the announcement in an open letter by President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Provost Persis Drell and Athletic Director Bernard Muir, indicated that athletics, which will be reduced to 25 varsity teams, needed to be able to sustain itself. The letter said the school examined covering budget shortfalls through ticket sales, broadcasting revenue, university funding, philanthropy and budget cuts, but found them insufficient.
“While Stanford may be perceived to have limitless resources, the truth is we do not,” the letter said.
Muir, in a Zoom call with reporters later today, said dipping into the endowment was not an option because it is reserved for nonathletic scholarships and faculty research. Supporting 36 sports was not sustainable — pandemic or not. But the budget shortfalls, which were projected to exceed $12 million for the 2021 fiscal year even before the pandemic, would be considerably worse if football is not played this fall, as appears increasingly likely.
“I don’t want to pin this all on COVID,” Muir said, but added that without football this fall, “you can just go ahead and double that figure again.”
Athletes said they were blindsided by the news.
They received an email from Muir at 9:10 a.m. Pacific time advising them of a webinar at 9:45 a.m., concerning time-sensitive Stanford updates for student-athletes.
“We thought, all of us in our group chat, that this was going to be updates about housing and stuff” like practice, said Noah Sebastian Matricciani, a sophomore fencer.
The call lasted five minutes.
“It was, ‘This is the process that’s going to happen, we’re cutting these 11 programs,’ ” Matricciani said. “No discussion, no questions.”
Added another fencer, senior Anna Lee: “To see it all come crashing down feels fake, like a prank almost. I can’t help but wonder if this was really the last resort. For a school that emphasized persistence and flaunted school pride, it seems abrupt to just call it quits.”
Among the sports that will be dropped after the next academic year are four that have been problematic for the school — co-ed and women’s sailing, and men’s and lightweight rowing.
A little more than a year ago, sailing coach John Vandemoer was fired after being swept up in the nationwide college admissions scandal. Shortly after that, the school fired rowing coach Craig Amerkhanian for violating employee behavior policies. Both programs operate out of a gleaming, 16,500-square foot boathouse named after John Arrillaga Sr., a developer and former Stanford basketball player who is one of the school’s most prominent benefactors.
Though Stanford had churned out a steady stream of Olympic rowers over the years, more recently the program had endured budget cuts. Stanford spent $386,000 on its rowing program in 2017 — a 30% cut from its peak and dwarfed by what Washington ($1.25 million) and Yale and California (each around $675,000) were spending. Coaches in so-called nonrevenue sports were expected to be active in fundraising.
Nevertheless, the Stanford lightweight rowing team swept the 2019 national championships.
“What a terribly sad day,” said Yasmin Farooq, a rowing coach at Washington who left Stanford in 2016 after 10 seasons. She said the move would also be a blow for the U.S. Olympic team, which would lose a strong feeder program. “I can’t even imagine how the lightweight women must feel.”
Stanford said there were 10 factors that were considered in determining which sports to drop, including gender equity and diversity, financial savings, and fan interest.
Six of the programs are not NCAA-sponsored championship sports. Stanford’s synchronized swimming — now known as “artistic swimming” outside of collegiate venues — was one of five nonclub programs. The last time the team took home the national championship title was in 2016, coming in second to Ohio State for the past three years before the event was canceled this year amid the health crisis. The program split one scholarship among its athletes until 2016, when scholarships for incoming athletes were eliminated.
In all, Stanford said it would also eliminate 22 coaches and 20 staff support positions. The school said it would honor all existing athletic scholarship commitments, as well as contracts of coaches and support staff, who will receive severance pay.
In a recent interview, NCAA President Mark Emmert said decisions like Stanford’s today are likely to be more frequent, whether they are brought on by health concerns or the financial crunch from the pandemic.
“Some schools are having to make decisions around one or both of those, and sadly, I do think that we’ll see more of them,” Emmert said, adding that he was “afraid and confident in my fear that we’ll see more sports be dropped, whether it’s programs or entire seasons canceled.”