In Ohio, crimson “O”s are painted on various barns throughout the rolling hills of the countryside. When passing through Missouri, gold and black flags wave proudly from townhomes showing their Mizzou pride. Driving through northwest Arkansas, Razorback stickers appear on every car on interstate 49. In a small gas station in southern Iowa, “Hawkeye vodka” is on sale for $12. And this is just the beginning.
The scope of university branding throughout this country is amazing. As we stare down the uncertainties of the fall, such as no college football in 2020, I beg to ask the question: what does our world look like without college sports?
Athletic programs are integral in securing brand recognition, driving sales, tuition, and enrollment. The university system without the “athletic aspect” becomes a much different industry.
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As of July 26th, nine conferences have canceled or postponed their fall athletic seasons. This includes two Power 5 conferences (Big Ten & Pac-12) as well as the Big East, the Atlantic 10 Conference, and more.
In an article by ESPN, a possible loss of $4 billion dollars to Power 5 schools is reported if there is no college football 2020. This equates to an average loss of $65 million per school. These losses would very likely have lasting effects on not only the athletic departments but the universities themselves. Athletic directors across the country see the writing on the wall as budget cuts, furloughs, and altering programs has ensued.
The heads of four different athletic associations, Kathy Deboer, Greg Earhart, Rob Kehoe, and Mike Moyer, released a message in April pleading with athletic departments and the NCAA to not cut sports. “Cutting sports is not the right answer and should be taken off the table in this time of unprecedented challenges.”
“As representatives of intercollegiate Olympic sport coaches who will be impacted by this potential action, we are imploring the NCAA to remember that our first and most important commitment isn’t to sponsors or even to fans, it’s to our students. We stand ready to partner with the NCAA to explore every possible avenue for maintaining our investment in them.”
But with the continued uncertainties and financial losses, their efforts were in vain. As of July 8th, a total of 159 Division I, Division II, and Division III teams have been cut due to the pandemic.
This comes primarily from smaller schools that, with enrollment for the fall decreasing, just cannot foot the bill for athletics anymore. Research states that pre-virus 10 percent of universities were already facing the possibility of closing their doors. Now, estimates indicate that another 10 percent have to be added to that list.
However, some experts argue that cutting teams can actually cause athletic departments to lose money rather than save it.
Idaho President Chuck Staben found that at his university, the total cost of tuition by non-scholarship athletes helped the bottom line of the college despite the cost of gear, travel, and other expenses. This even rang true with equivalency sports which are often looked at as a financial burden to athletic departments.
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Although the finances of universities are at the forefront of the college sports conversation, one has to consider other implications of a fall (potentially) without college sports.
Colleges are the backbones of many communities. Yes, some schools are located in large, populated cities, but many are not. Many institutions are the reason the town it resides in, becomes a city.
The University of Nebraska Kearney, for example, has done wonders for the rural area it resides in. Kearney reports an unemployment rate of 2.4 percent compared to the states’ 3.4 percent. Hard to visualize the impact a dormant athletic department would have on the communities surrounding Kearney. This department provides a plethora of jobs as well as entertainment through having 14 collegiate sports teams.
Kearney is not the exception, it’s the example.
If you have ever visited a college town, you understand the importance of higher education as a community-builder. The community is often built off of the college and the brand recognition of the college is directly tied to the athletic program.
In both rural and metropolitan communities there are solid economic systems revolving around athletics. Merchandise shops, local restaurants, parking structures, event venues, bars, and hotels are a part of this complex system relying solely on college athletics.
All of these have owners and employees who create their livelihood around a university and its events. This is how the brand recognition of universities grows and strengthens, because it is not just a game, it is what gets them up in the morning and often what puts food on their tables.
In conclusion, I think it’s important to look at the impact of college athletics past an economic asset to higher education.
What do sports mean to us? What do games, tournaments, and teams mean to the communities that host them?
Once we take all the factors into account, I believe we get a better understanding of the impact of college sports on our universities and communities across the United States.