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UM athletics cuts: College Park suffers from its bad bet on basketball

The flagship university for the state of Maryland, which happens to be a pioneer member of the Bowl Championship Series-rich Atlantic Coast Conference and resides in a state that boasts the wealthiest county in the country, has announced it will eliminate eight sports teams from its athletic department. The reason given by the University of Maryland, College Park: money troubles.

Terrapin student-athletes playing on teams such as men's tennis, women's swimming and indoor/outdoor track, to name a few, will continue to receive scholarship assistance for their remaining time at Maryland but will have to go elsewhere if they wish to satisfy their competitive edge. The cuts are immediate and will reduce the total number of sports from 27 to an embarrassingly low 19.

The fact that a state university of Maryland's size (26,000 undergraduate students, 240,000 living alumni) is cutting sports programs is more a result of mismanagement and lack of business acumen than a result of the current fragile economic environment. The announcement made last week by university officials is 10 years in the making and will, sadly, not be the end of this story.

A decade ago, a dear friend of mine perfectly summed up the sentiment in College Park: "It's a great time to be a Terp." And indeed it was. The men's basketball program had participated in its first ever Final Four in April 2001 and was projected to return in 2002. Not to be outdone, the football program had finished first in the ACC and received an invitation to play in the FedEx Orange Bowl at the same time.

Surprisingly, though, due to campus politics and promises to a remarkable corporate sponsor, the brain trust known as the athletic department decided to bank the entire future of Maryland sports on men's basketball. New football coach Ralph Friedgen knew this but naively predicted a reality check, with hopes of influencing the Terrapin community to understand the source of primary revenue for intercollegiate athletics: football.

But the top brass of the athletic department refused to believe it. Instead, they opted to sign Comcast Corp. to a $55 million commitment to build the $110 million facility aptly named the Comcast Center. Realizing the school was already stepping over dollars to pick up nickels, the athletic department virtually promised the entire $55 million commitment would be returned to Comcast in the form of mandatory cable fees assessed to each student residing on campus.

In addition, the athletic department chose to adjust the rules for those pledging dollars by promising "choice" tickets inside the new facility. And, since the men's basketball program was one of the few elite teams playing in the nation at that time, the sell was hardly difficult.

The ruse would continue unless men's basketball did the unthinkable: lose.

Now, 10 years later, the foundation of the program — Hall of Fame coach Gary Williams — is no longer courtside, and the school continues to have trouble selling out games. Incorporate the problems with the football program, and you have the ingredients of a complicated recovery strategy for a university used to minting professional athletes and delivering high graduation rates.

Other state universities and their athletic departments are used to receiving upward of 50 percent of their entire revenue stream from the school's football program. At Maryland, the number hovers just south of 40 percent. Had the powers that be at Maryland recognized the financial juggernaut inside Byrd Stadium rather than squeezing water out of a brick in hopes of many Final Four seasons, last Monday's announcement would not have happened.

With donations down and the school's only two revenue-producing programs becoming a laughingstock in the ACC, the future is bleak — at best — for what was a once-proud sports department. Many hope the eight squads eliminated will be a temporary, one-time, occurrence. However, the numbers off the playing field put Terp Nation in a very uncomfortable fiscal mess that will most likely result in more pain than progress.

Todd M. Schoenberger is the managing director of LandColt Trading LLC, a financial services firm, and a former executive board member of the University of Maryland Terrapin Club. His email is todd.schoenberger@landcolttrading.com.

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