Photos by Summer Brills and courtesy of University of Evansville Athletics
At the end of the day, collegiate sports are nothing more than a [multi-billion dollar] business.
Everyone on the University of Evansville’s women’s tennis team was smiling as they filed into the athletic office. They had done well in their final tournament of the fall season. And they’d done it without a full-time coach, the last one having left for another job at the beginning of the school year. They were expecting a nice pat on the back, maybe an announcement that a coach had been hired. Instead, they exited in shock. Some left with tears in their eyes. Others were too shaken to feel much at all.
“I couldn’t even react. It just happened so suddenly,” Evansville senior Chieko Yamada says.
Playing a sport at the collegiate level is considered to be a privilege and many athletes are fortunate enough to play all four years for their recruited school. Some, however, are forced to transfer, while others may never get the opportunity to finish their career at all. Some — like the Evansville women’s tennis program — are cut, seemingly in spite of the almost $10 billion college sports generate yearly.
At the end of the day, college sports are little more than a business.
Ted Tatos, an economist with a background in antitrust, became particularly interested in collegiate sports because of certain antitrust arguments involved in athletics. Antitrust laws were put in place to protect consumers from unfair corporate practices. This can be seen in both collegiate sports and economics as they revolve around one thing: competition.
“It’s just economics,” Tatos says. “[College athletic departments] compete on things like reputation and facilities, so they’re likely to cut the sports that don’t foster that goal. This is why the NCAA’s claim that ‘It’s about education’ is nonsense.”
With a reputation on the line, athletic departments focus their funding on the sports with the largest following — i.e. the ones that make the most money.
“There’s no question that football and basketball are treated differently. As a Duke graduate, I’m aware that the Duke basketball team flies to games on a private jet,” Tatos says. “If, as the NCAA claims, athletics are a part of education just like any other program, then you would not see such cuts. It’s simply a reflection that NCAA sports are a business, and schools are firms that treat these sports exactly as that.”
In 2016, 68.7 percent of the NCAA’s Division-I revenue came from football and men’s basketball. The other 31.3 percent was made up by the remaining 24 sports. Less than 1 percent of it came from women’s tennis.
Athletic Director Mark Spencer explains why the women’s tennis team was cut, instead of a different program. “Many factors went into the decision including finances, facilities, public perception and Title IX,” he says. “Certain programs, like men’s and women’s basketball, softball and volleyball are mandatory to be a part of our conference, the Missouri Valley.”
“We made the difficult decision to cut the tennis program, hurting the eight current student-athletes, instead of trying to spread the pain to the other 250 student-athletes.”
Complying with these rules, along with the university’s continued financial and enrollment struggles, were some of the issues Evansville encountered. And, due to the recent addition of men’s and women’s track and field teams, the athletic department was no longer complying with Title IX rules, forcing them to make a cut somewhere.
“The decision was ultimately a financial decision, forced because of outside factors,” Spencer says. “We made the difficult decision to cut the tennis program, hurting the eight current student-athletes, instead of trying to spread the pain to the other 250 student-athletes.”
What has left the confusion, however, is the fact that the women’s tennis team was on the uprise, vying for a spot at a conference championship and the accompanying spot at the national tournament.
“It makes sense they had to cut somewhere since the enrollment is so low, but why pick on tennis when we showed the most success in 30 years of the program?” Evansville sophomore Diana Tkachenko says. “We got an email explaining in detail why they cut the program, but I’m still not convinced at all. We were the most successful team and had a great shot to win conference. Some people just don’t understand tennis.”
The sting of a program cut runs even deeper when the student-athletes are blindsided by the decision.
I feel like the timing of this could not have been worse,” Yamada says. “We went to the meeting with hope of getting new coaches or being congratulated, but instead we were told that the university is cutting tennis.”
“Nobody is going to cut the history program because it doesn’t generate revenue.”
Athletic departments pride themselves on upholding a winning reputation. But, even when some teams do just that, they get repaid by having their program taken out from under them.
“Nobody is going to cut the history program because it doesn’t generate revenue. But, it appears they will cut the tennis team if it becomes highly unprofitable, success notwithstanding,” Tatos says. “I expect the lower rungs, in terms of revenue-producing sports, will be cut as more and more schools compete on football and basketball.”
The future of collegiate sports programs, aside from those money-makers, have a very shaky future. Winning or not, any program may start to fear an unavoidable conclusion: getting cut.