Temple University is eliminating six intercollegiate sports teams -- part of what the New York Times describes as a “disturbing trend” of universities cutting "nonrevenue" sports in the era of big-time football and basketball.
Before we get too carried away with lamentations on the death of “amateur sport” in the U.S., let’s make a few things clear. To begin, there is no disturbing trend here. Yes, a handful of schools -- most notably Rutgers University and the University of Maryland -- have cut some sports. But the average National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I school has added more than 100 student-athletes a year since 2000. Most of these students play nonrevenue sports. This is impressive growth, especially when you consider that we have spent many of those years in the midst of a massive recession that has taken a huge toll on state funding for public education.
During that same time period, 31 schools joined Division I (with only two leaving) -- this, despite the fact that for four years, the NCAA banned new entrants into DI because too many schools wanted in. Also, keep in mind that to enter DI, you have to have at least 14 sports, so the vast majority of these new programs are not revenue generators.
OK, so amateur sports aren’t dying. Temple’s decision remains noteworthy because one of the sports being eliminated is crew, the original and still emblematic intercollegiate sport. Nothing says “amateurism” quite like broad-shouldered men quietly rowing their scull up a placid river -- preferably the Charles, but the Schuylkill will do in a pinch -- at daybreak, their minds unsullied by visions of professional fame and fortune. (Never mind the fact that in the 19th century, college rowers -- including a future Harvard University president, Charles Eliot! -- earned substantial cash prizes when they won regattas.)
Meanwhile, Temple’s football team, which just closed out a 2-10 season, was spared the ax. Because the school’s football program is so very bad -- Temple has been to all of four bowl games in almost 80 years -- a lot of people concluded that the university had cut the wrong sport. Here’s the problem with that reasoning: You can argue that Temple should stop fielding such a terrible football team. And you can argue that Temple shouldn’t abandon crew. But you can’t argue that the two decisions -- to keep one and kill the other -- had anything to do with each other.
Running a university is, at its core, a giant budgeting exercise. Schools take in money from a few major sources (tuition, donations, research grants and, in Temple’s case, the Pennsylvania Legislature) and a few minor ones (the bookstore, parking lots, the football team), then dole it out to a lot of money-losing ventures. Decisions on intercollegiate athletics are best understood not as asymmetrical warfare between revenue and nonrevenue sports, but as the product of simple cost-benefit analyses.
Even at 2-10, the football team probably makes more money than it costs to run, and so the decision to keep it was probably easy. But while crew and football may both be sports, from an economic standpoint, crew may actually have more in common with Temple's classics department: Both are activities that appeal to a specific segment of the community, and both cost the university money and generate no revenue.
Temple’s decision to cut crew reflects only one thing: the school’s low opinion of the sport's value to the university. This is especially clear when you consider how little Temple will save by cutting it. According to the New York Times, there are 62 women and 32 men rowing at Temple. It’s safe to assume that few of these student-athletes were receiving substantial athletic scholarships. (After all, this is crew we’re talking about.) It’s also safe to assume that many of these athletes will wind up transferring to -- or, in future years, matriculating at -- a school where they can continue to row. In other words, Temple will probably sacrifice tuitions -- $14,340 for each Pennsylvania resident and $24,710 for those coming from out of state. This could represent more than $2.3 million in lost revenue for the school a year.
Will Temple be able to fill those vacated slots with qualified students to make up for the lost revenue? We can’t answer the question definitively, but at a glance, it doesn’t look like it. Temple accepts more than two-thirds of all students who apply, and about one-third of those accepted choose to attend. This suggests that the university has to work pretty hard to reach its total undergraduate enrollment of almost 28,000 students.
Even if Temple is able to fill those slots with students who meet its admissions criteria, we don’t know whether the students will be from in state or out of state -- or, for that matter, how much financial aid they’ll be receiving from the school. (Almost 70 percent of Temple’s students receive an average of $6,731 in financial aid.)
The point is that it’s entirely possible that whatever money the school saves by eliminating the expenses associated with its crew teams will be more than offset by the lost tuitions, or the costs associated with the students who replace the departing rowers. The same is true for the rest of the non-revenue-generating sports that are getting the ax: baseball, softball, men’s track and field, and men’s gymnastics.
Even if you accept Temple’s numbers, the savings barely qualify as negligible. The school puts them at about $3 million a year combined, which represents a microscopic percentage of the school’s overall annual budget of $1.2 billion. How microscopic? Imagine a family that spends $120 a week on groceries cutting 30 cents from its supermarket budget. (Remove the most bruised banana from that bunch, and you’re good to go.)
If you’re not happy about the impending death of Temple crew, you probably have a legitimate gripe with the school’s administration. Join the movement to save it, or start a fundraising campaign to replace its decaying Victorian boathouses on the Schuylkill. (Hurry, before the university sells that riverfront property to a developer!) Just don’t blame the school’s hapless football players. It wasn’t their fault.
(Jonathan Mahler is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)