It was a painful day for the University of Connecticut this week as more than 100 students found out the school was cutting the sports that support their educations. As a result of a yawning budget gap, UConn eliminated four sports from its roster of top-level athletics, and reduced its future scholarships elsewhere, as well. It won’t solve the school’s ongoing money problems, but it is a step toward bringing income and expenses closer into line.
The cuts are part of a mandate for the athletics department to cut 25 percent of its $42 million subsidy from the university over the next three years. The result is the elimination of the men’s tennis, swimming and diving, cross country, and women’s rowing programs.
By the numbers, these decisions are justifiable. Men’s track and cross country, for instance, brought in $48,000 in revenue, according to a 2019 report, while costing $1.6 million to run. But it’s not that simple. Few departments at a university bring in a profit on their own, which doesn’t make them any less a necessary part of the college experience. The challenge is deciding how much of a subsidy various programs should receive, and where the money should come from.
Looming over any discussion of UConn athletics is football, which just a decade ago looked to be on an upward trajectory. The past 10 years, though, have seen one losing season after another, coaches coming and going and the red ink only increasing — football accounted for $13.3 million of the $42 million deficit last year, the most of any sport.
With all that losing and fan interest at a low point, it naturally raises the question — shouldn’t football be on the chopping block and the rowing team spared? That would certainly save money in the near term. Why take it out on the cross country team?
The real answer is more complicated. Football is experiencing an extended dry spell, but it’s worth remembering that when it did well, the fans showed up in droves. And UConn has not accepted its current straits sitting down — it has made major changes, including abandoning its ill-fitting home in the American Athletic Conference for a return to the Big East for its showcase basketball programs, which should be a serious boon for fan interest — and revenue.
Football is embarking on its own experiment as an independent, without a conference to call home. This, too, shows promise. Rather than taking regular road trips to schools that have no fan interest, UConn is lining up some big-name opponents — with big payouts to match — in coming years. It may be tough on the win-loss record, but there will be benefits to the bottom line.
But there must be a time frame on this plan. If fans remain scarce and the deficits continue to rise after a few years under this new system, UConn will need to consider cutting its losses. The school isn’t there yet, but university officials must be clear-eyed about the future. This is football’s chance to turn things around, but maybe it should be the last chance.