There is something precarious about the college athletics funding model, in which large universities often rely on a small number of revenue-producing teams to support “minor” sports such as track and field, swimming and tennis.
When the “big” sports falter, the other sports are often casualties. That’s part of what happened at Maryland, where seven teams were eliminated as of last July.
Revenue declines by Maryland’s traditional money makers – football and men’s basketball – began in the 2006 fiscal year before the current president and athletic director arrived. There used to be reserves on hand to fill the ensuing budget gaps. The reserves were depleted, and such sports as men’s cross country and men’s and women’s swimming and diving are gone – at least for now.
If you think this model looks strange, imagine how it must appear to a Kenyan-born cross-country runner trying to fathom why his sport -– full of the sorts of high-achieving students universities say they covet -– had to be eliminated by Maryland. I wrote a story about the runner, Kikanae Punyua, for Sunday’s paper.
“I mean I get it that basketball and football are the sports that generate money,” Punyua told me after the sports were cut. “But I really didn't know how this happened because they should always plan ahead. I really have no idea how this happened, and then the tough thing was explaining how this happened to my family.”
Maryland hopes and believes that its entry into the Big Ten – with the accompanying financial windfall from shared television revenues – will put athletics on firmer financial footing and shield it from having to slash teams in the future. Maryland may be able to restore some of the sports programs already cut.
It’s not just Punyua who was expressed concern about the system. It’s Maryland itself.
“The current business model of intercollegiate athletics nationwide is inequitable and unsustainable,” Maryland president Wallace D. Loh said last year before the Big Ten invitation was on the radar.
Maryland’s situation – with solid students such as Punyua facing uncertain athletic futures – was testament to that.