Small sports fight to stay afloat during pandemic

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Photo Credit: Zachary Strain | Daily Texan Staff

Americans long for a post-pandemic world, but what’s waiting on the other side could be far from normal, especially in sports where financial losses are changing the college athletics landscape.

The success and revenue of football and men’s basketball often help sustain other athletic programs. While some bigger sports — softball, women’s basketball and baseball — can afford to operate at a deficit in the wake of the pandemic, the smaller, niche sports may be in trouble. Several athletic programs around the country have already felt the effects of COVID-19 and have been cut before their fall seasons even begin. 

“That's certainly a concern,” said Dave O’Neill, Texas rowing head coach, on the possibility of rowing being cut from the athletic program. “I was concerned about that last year. I'm just always concerned about that.”

Texas Athletics had an operating budget of $179.5 million during the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to a Texas press release. The Longhorns generated $144.5 million from football alone in the previous year, according to a 2019 USA Today article. 

Not every program is as valuable as the million-dollar Longhorns, which only increases the burden of continuing sports that don’t generate revenue. O’Neill said he believes in the athletic department at Texas and thinks his team will be okay, but it’s the other programs he’s apprehensive about.

“I think at The University of Texas, I think we're in a good position as an athletic department,” O’Neill said. “So I'm not too worried about that. But I'm worried about (rowing) in general.”

On July 8, Stanford University announced it would be cutting 11 programs, which have accounted for a combined 20 national championships and 27 Olympic gold medals. The programs will resume in the 2020-21 season if it is safe to do so, the statement said. 

"We felt it was imperative to confront the financial challenge before it worsened, to undertake a deliberate and collaborative decision-making process with our Board of Trustees and campus leadership, and to exhaust all alternatives before making profound changes in our programs, especially during this difficult time,” the university said in the official statement. 

Stanford’s decision to cut many athletic programs has more than just financial ramifications, as it ends the collegiate careers of over 240 student-athletes. Smaller schools across the nation have cut programs, but Stanford’s decision was one of the first on its scale.

“I was really sad (when I saw the decision),” former Texas rower Caitlin Shick said. “One thing about rowing that's different than other sports is that there's no professional rowing team or league. So for most girls, including myself, you row in college and then when your career ends after the four years, that’s kind of it.”

As for Texas rowing, the only way to make its case to stay is by winning, O’Neill said. Since rowing is not a major revenue sport, its existence is decided by results, which should play out in Texas’ favor. In the last five years under O'Neill, the Longhorns have placed in the top 10 at the NCAA Championship and have consecutively won five Big 12 Conference Championships.

“You can turn any negative into a positive,” O’Neill said. “We need to show why we're important. We have to be showing year after year that rowing adds value to the University ... and I think we do a really good job of that.”