Colleges Scrap Varsity Athletics Teams


Allison Korn

Harvard Stadium, where the college football team usually plays, was closed for the entire season.

Zoe Mello Zdraveski, Contributing Writer

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic hardship that has followed, many private and public universities have begun slashing some of their varsity athletic teams. Since April, more than 250 teams in about 24 sports have been eliminated across collegiate athletics departments. That number includes teams from all three NCAA divisions, and the decision to cut sports has drawn intense backlash from athletes, alumni, and recruiting services.

Most schools have lost revenue from student fees and donations, and are playing a shortened football season with limited to no fan attendance. The downsizing of this cash-cow for the universities results in a severe dent in revenue, and school’s budgets have been hurt in general as a result of the pandemic; they have responded to these deficits by eliminating teams. 

Even the nation’s wealthiest schools—Stanford cut 11 of its varsity programs last summer and projected an athletics deficit of at least $25 million for fiscal 2021, and Brown cut 11 varsity programs and elevated 2 sports to varsity status—are feeling the financial crunch. Schools have cited racial justice as a deciding factor in the teams they scrap, and as such many of the teams that schools have decided to cut are less diverse. Sports that are known as “elitist” staples, like golf, tennis, crew, and sailing, disproportionally attract white, wealthy students, have small teams, and require expensive facilities while making no money for the university. In the 2018-19 school year, 56% of Division I athletes were white, according to the NCAA, roughly in line with the overall student population at those schools. However, 70% of men on college golf teams, 72% of women rowers and almost 90% of women equestrians are white. Dartmouth College is eliminating its golf program along with the Hanover Country Club it owns after losing more than $1 million on the property annually. 

Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College, who has consulted extensively in the sports industry, details that even at the highest-revenue athletic programs in the nation, most departments are spending more than they are earning. He explains, “They don’t have cost discipline, what they’re trying to do is win games, and they’re doing it almost regardless of cost. What you have is five, six, seven programs a year running a true surplus.”

Incidents like 2019’s “Operation Varsity Blues,” in which several wealthy families were charged with participating in a scheme to cheat the college admissions system at elite schools nationwide (some of them through bribing coaches to create fake athletic recruits), have also attracted greater societal scrutiny towards the role athletic recruitment plays in the admissions process. The scandals have further incentivized universities to cut down their varsity slots and place less emphasis on recruitment, especially those that are typically filled by wealthier, white students.

Many institutions have also cited Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 as a factor in their decisions on which teams to cut; the bill requires schools to maintain roughly equal numbers of scholarship opportunities for male and female athletes. For colleges with big football squads, the balancing of male and female players on its varsity squads can be tough, so with the financial strain caused by the pandemic, men’s sports are more often on the chopping block. In the recent flurry of downsizing, colleges have cut around 300 more men’s roster spots than women’s spots.

For colleges with big football squads, the balancing of male and female players on its varsity squads can be tough, so with the financial strain caused by the pandemic, men’s sports are more often on the chopping block.

Though this is all sad news for prospective recruits and frustrating to the schools’ current athletes, the transition to club teams could have some upsides. Fewer scholarships offered means universities have more funding to devote to a wider variety of sports that aren’t played at the varsity level, teams that are free of the NCAA rule book and an exploitative business model that turns many athletes into employees with no salary. According to experts, this trend is only going to continue, accelerated by the pandemic; Zimbalist has stated, “I think you’re going to see much deeper cuts going forward.” Sports economist Andy Schwarz of the economic consulting firm OSKR agrees: “I definitely think we’re in a ‘don’t let a good crisis go to waste’ mode.” Though it’s highly unlikely that big-time revenue producing programs like football or men’s basketball will be cut, the system of college athletics is certainly in a state of turmoil.