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Overreaction Monday; Big Ten’s Decisions Cost Iowa Four Programs

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Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to postpone fall football in the Big Ten, one thing is clear: Iowa lost four varsity programs as a result.

Northern Illinois v Iowa
Gary Barta has had to make some tough decisions in recent weeks. They won’t be getting any easier.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

The hits just continue to come in 2020. It’s been less than two weeks since we learned the Big Ten, and then PAC-12, would not be having football in this calendar year. While the conferences both are messaging a plan to play the season in the spring of 2021, there’s widespread doubt about that actually occurring.

Over the last 13 days, we’ve seen unparalleled turmoil across the college sports landscape. Since Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren made the announcement the conference would be postponing the fall football season, parents of players from Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State have all responded in kind with letters looking for answers.

The questions were varied, but centered around one topic: transparency. The decision was made behind closed doors and without prior consultation or input from the parents or players themselves. Indeed, as we’ve come to see since the announcement, it was made against the will those most at risk of infection (let’s save the discussion on risk of death and agree the players making physical contact repeatedly in practice and games are most at risk of transmitting COVID-19 between one another).

Perhaps more frustrating, it was made without any prior communication or messaging to parents. Further still, it was made less than a week after the conference put out a revised schedule for a fall season that including two collapsible weeks that could have been utilized to push the start date back to September 26th, in line with other conferences, rather than outright cancelling a fall season with seemingly no change in circumstances from the week prior.

So parents went looking for answers. Literally. They sent their letters and when Kevin Warren’s response was unsatisfactory, they quite literally went to the Big Ten office to get answers.

There remain none. Despite Warren insisting there was a vote by university presidents to postpone the season, the presidents themselves have indicated otherwise. Athletic directors have also indicated they were not made aware of any such vote either in advance or after the fact.

If they had been consulted, ADs seem likely to have largely opposed postponing the season. College football is big money. Losing it means losing lots of money. Lots and lots.

In a letter to the Hawkeye community a week ago, Iowa AD Gary Barta outlines just how severe those revenue losses would be. In total, the Iowa athletic department expects to lose out on $100M this year. For a program that typically operates in the black and receives no state appropriations to cover costs, including coaches salaries, that means an expected operating loss of $60-75M in the 2020-2021 year. Not small numbers.

Late last week, we began to see just what that means for a school like Iowa. Those types of dollars aren’t simply pulled from somewhere else. The University of Iowa has a sizable endowment (though not even top half in the conference) and substantial athletics donations. But they aren’t enough to sustain the entire department without traditional revenue streams. Furthermore, the vast majority of those endowed funds simply cannot be allocated to anything other than their donor-intended purposes (which are often highly specific and restrictive, such as scholarships to students from a select town with certain GPA and major requirements). The result is hard decisions being made.

On Friday, the University of Iowa announced the elimination of four athletics programs: men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis.

These are major impacts for a number of people. While athletes in those four sports will have their scholarships honored at Iowa through graduation, they won’t have a team to compete with after this year. Those coaches will soon be out of jobs. And a generation of young Hawkeye fans growing up participating in those sports won’t have their team to root for or dream of playing with.

Perhaps most interestingly, however, is the financial impact those decisions will actually have. The combined annual operating expenses (not losses, expenses before revenue) for the four programs being cut was less than $1M. Put another way, Iowa is paying more to Chris Doyle in 2020 than they are for the four programs being cut.

Interestingly, the swimming and diving programs, which have such a storied tradition as the birthplace of the butterfly stroke, will be vacating a ten year old, $69M facility. Men’s tennis is similarly vacating a just 14-year old Hawkeye Tennis and Recreation Complex. The athletic department had been investing in these programs and are now cutting them entirely to save less than $1M a year.

The simple takeaway there is that these will not be the last cuts. More coaches will have pay cuts, more staffs will be trimmed down and more programs will be cut altogether. Football and men’s basketball pay the bills at every university around the country. Without them, non-revenue sports are dying.

Ironically, it will be the student-athletes who most embody the student portion of that label who are impacted by the decision, purportedly made by university presidents, to postpone (and likely cancel) football. Those same university presidents are continuing to push for in-person classes as long as they can, beyond refund dates. They’re risking the health of students to keep their revenues, but wouldn’t risk the health of football players, who had the option to opt out without losing eligibility or scholarships, to save their athletic departments.

As with the entire process, there are more questions than answers. With each new decision and each new announcement, whether it be from Kevin Warren and the Big Ten, Mark Emmert and the NCAA or Gary Barta and the University of Iowa. the list of questions grows longer and the water grows muddier. Don’t expect that to change any time soon.