Why Are Schools Gambling On Student-Athletes?

Betting is a big "no-no" in collegiate sports. 

The NCAA strictly prohibits college athletes from gambling on games and strongly encourages fans to do the same with their championships. That being the case, why are athletic departments gambling financially when cutting sports teams?

They’re wagering on their student-athletes, resulting in significant swings in tuition revenue. Colleges, specifically those with highly integrated academic and athletic budgets, are risking money when cutting sports programs. 

It goes like this: Athletics departments, and the school, itself, are assuming that when the "athlete" is removed from student-athlete, they will stay enrolled as the "student." Institutions are hopeful the tuition money stays in their accounts. 

Many collegiate swimmers are quick to debunk the assumption and transfer to continue their careers.

Recently, it happened at North Dakota, when its program was terminated over a year ago. Half of the returning swimmers and divers left for another school. In most cases, it was for a close proximity, Division I institution. 

As one would expect, it was mostly freshmen who left North Dakota. Seventy-five percent of the freshmen on that team opted to find a new school. North Dakota willingly tossed aside 15 students who had three years of tuition remaining while still honoring those who were there on scholarship.

The school also loses a guaranteed 50 enrolled students every year. The amount of tuition lost at North Dakota annually could creep into the upper hundreds of thousands. That number would be over $1 million if the entire team was comprised of out-of-staters.

Now, a year later, Eastern Michigan is testing those waters with its men’s team. They’ve bet on the students staying enrolled without a swim team. The students are fighting to stay in Ypsilanti by working to save the program. The movement is in opposition to the elimination of multiple sports.

The protests have gained support on social media from the swimming community. Students even held a rally on campus. Financial pledges have been made toward saving the team as well. 

Wright State found success in that area this year, raising enough funds to save the team for a year. The issue is often the budgeting and structure by which the department operates. Sometimes tuition loss doesn’t play into the picture.

For example, an institution with a self-sufficient athletic department is less concerned about tuition income than a school that isn’t operating on its own. If the standalone department cuts a team, the department budget is benefited. Fewer scholarships and operation expenses to pay.

These schools typically are Power Five schools. The last of those to cut were Clemson and Maryland in 2012.

In other cases, the general fund is contributing money toward athletics. There are schools using multiples of million of student fees or school funds to pay for athletics. Eastern Michigan received over $24 million from the school in 2016. School funds were easily the largest revenue stream.

Tuition is relevant to the discussion at Eastern Michigan. According to the "#SaveEMUSports" movement, Eastern Michigan men’s swimming was generating a profit for the university when all the contributing factors were taken into account. Tuition and individual contribution played a huge roll.

The discussion around cutting a team always comes back to funding, despite the beliefs that other motives fueled the cuts. Aquatic facility rent and coaching tenure, both money driven. Even when athletics budgets were growing significantly due to increased TV revenue, teams were being cut. 

Athletic departments don’t see it as a gamble. There are immediate expenses avoided by cutting a program. Taken into account is Title IX and success, in most cases. At Eastern Michigan, success on the conference level wasn’t enough to allow the men’s swim team to be passed over. It was justified by the limited number of schools in the conference they were winning.

As revenue is important, image is equally as impactful to a school's bottom line. Are schools taking into account the level of backlash they will experience as a result of cutting a team? Putting perception on the table is a heavy hitting bet.

Eastern Michigan is taking flack from the swimming community, as well as from the other sports fanbases. The wrestling community has been outspoken in support of reviving the team. Anecdotal social media references point to youth coaches and mentors pushing athletes away from EMU. 

There goes more money—not to mention gifts from boosters. Many of those won’t be returning as the narrative shapes itself against the university.

At day's end, education is why these schools exist. Cutting sports not only costs the school tuition income but it also deters numerous potential students the chance to participate in sports and get an education at that university. 

In the case of swimming, if you are going to be paying for a pool anyway, why not field a team? Eastern Michigan, as a whole, won’t be saving much—if anything at all.

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