Many of us are rummaging through each nook and cranny of our lives for some optimism right now. In the case of college golf and the entire athletics model upon which universities across the country are reliant, finding hope or hopelessness depends on which perspective you choose.
A fascinating case study of mixed emotions comes from the University of Connecticut, a top-25 public academic institution with a proud athletic tradition to match. UConn’s men’s and women’s basketball programs have combined for 15 NCAA championships and their once-respectable football team played in a Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma a decade ago. The name and the logo are among the most recognizable in college sports, making them an outlier in the nationwide bloodletting of non-revenue collegiate sports being cut.
UConn’s financial strains were being felt well before the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem. One of the main issues on the athletic side is what happened a handful of years ago as the Huskies were burned by conference realignment. When the Atlantic Coast Conference had to replace a Big 10-bound Maryland back in 2014, officials valued Louisville’s strong football team over basketball-focused UConn. The school was without a Power 5 conference home and the significant revenue from favorable television contracts that come with it. Also, UConn’s anemic football program, supposedly a revenue sport, lost money last year and accounted for $13.3 million of a $42 million deficit.
“This was a very difficult, but necessary, decision. Reducing expenses is critical to our financial sustainability but that doesn’t make this decision any more palatable for the student-athletes and coaches on the affected teams. – David Benedict, UConn director of athletics
It all contributed to UConn voting this week to reduce its athletic subsidy by 25 percent, or $10 million, over the next three years. The school sponsored 24 teams last year, well above the average for a Division I program, and cutting some of those was judged to be the easiest path to balancing the spreadsheets. The announced casualties were men’s tennis, swimming and diving, cross country and the women’s rowing team, which left UConn’s men’s golf team (there is no women’s team at the school) unscathed except for being stripped of one scholarship and having to reduce expenses. The program only had 4.78 scholarships in 2019, a number that probably helped when compared to teams with more student-athletes.
“This was a very difficult, but necessary, decision,” director of athletics David Benedict said in a statement. “Reducing expenses is critical to our financial sustainability but that doesn’t make this decision any more palatable for the student-athletes and coaches on the affected teams.
“Despite our current emotions, we are optimistic that the financial plan approved today will serve as an important roadmap for a bright future for UConn athletics.”
It is, of course, a major win for college golf to have a program saved during a time when 15 golf teams across the country have been cut, including five (University of Akron men’s golf, Brown University’s men’s and women’s teams and Hampton University’s men’s and women’s teams) on the Division I level. Faced with its 80-year-old program possibly being taken away, UConn golf alumni furiously rallied to raise nearly $1 million in pledges. PGA professional John Bierkan was one of the leaders who helped reach their goal of having more than $200,000 committed for the upcoming year.
“This isn’t just a short-term thing,” Bierkan told the Hartford Courant. “Myself and a handful of others are committed to leading the charge for continual support for the program, and we’ve committed as a team to a five-year strategy to continue to raise funds for the golf team and show the athletic department that we’re here to stay.”
The unity and pride on display is heart-warming, something we all need right now. But the pessimist will point to something ultra-concerning: apparently those fundraising efforts didn’t save the program at all. Supporters of the tennis team had raised similar amounts without the same outcome, and the university’s board of trustees said the raised money wasn’t a consideration.
“Today’s action was unaffected by recent fundraising efforts,” according to a UConn statement. “While the generosity of alums and supporters is greatly appreciated and welcome, today’s action was meant to ensure the future success of UConn athletics. Philanthropy from alumni and supporters has always been critical to achieving our goal of long-term fiscal sustainability.”
The decision to cut tennis instead of golf is indicative of a larger trend in college athletics. There have now been 43 tennis teams cut, including 15 at the Division I level. No sport has been cut more, and second place (cross country at 17 teams cut overall) is not even close.
Still, the donations and pledges that came pouring in, which now barely seemed necessary in terms of the program’s existence, are problematic. If private funding can’t save college golf teams, the broken college athletics system is in constant danger. UConn golf has escaped for now, but it’s clearly at the mercy of the school’s revenue sports — one of those sports has failed financially and now 124 student-athletes on the four teams that were cut have to pay.
Is that really the best system for college athletics?
Athletic directors across the country have stated that if football isn’t played this fall or if the stands are only partially full, many non-revenue sports will be sacrificed. Having one team provide 75-85 percent of the athletics department revenue and be the lynchpin for the entire operation is irresponsible and ultimately not fair to the hundreds of athletes playing other sports, especially when departments are willing to spend astronomical amounts on football staff and facilities.
We can all hope for more golf programs to be spared in the short-term, but the long-term vision needs to change to something more sustainable.
The University of Connecticut’s Finn Boynton. Photo: Courtesy of University of Connecticut athletics
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