The University of Idaho’s athletics department is at a pivot point in its history. After being given 2 years by the State Board of Education to wipe out an approximately $1-million-dollar-per-year deficit, Idaho will find out in 2 weeks whether the board will grant them a waiver to continue working on the problem, or force them to cut sports.
According to the Idaho Statesman, Idaho will ask for more time at the meeting from April 18th-19th in Moscow. The school presented 2 plans to the board. In the first, they asked the board to change the way they calculate athletics expenses and revenue are calculated. In the second, they proposed cutting expenses by eliminating sports.
The Statesman speculates that 3 sports likely to be cut in the second plan are women’s soccer, men’s golf, and women’s swimming and diving: three sports that they are not required to sponsor for membership in the Big Sky Conference. That would result in beach volleyball and women’s triathlon being added to maintain Title IX compliance and achieve the minimum 14 sports required for participation in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). Beach volleyball and triathlon are generally deemed as two of the least-expensive NCAA sports to sponsor.
Those teams were informed of the possibility of being cut last week.
If the waiver is granted, however, Idaho president Chuck Staben will use the time to try to convince the board to change the way they calculate revenue and expenses. Specifically, in that plan, the school would add three sports without scholarships: men’s swimming, women’s triathlon, and co-ed rifle. Those sports would be relatively inexpensive, and athletes would receive academic scholarships and out-of-state-tuition waivers rather than athletic scholarships – meaning that they’d be paying tuition, which the athletics department could then count as “revenue.” Staben estimates that adding those 3 sports would cost about $115,000 and would bring in $1.1 million in revenue for the university.
That plan would also transition the women’s swim team to the ‘academic scholarship level’ proposed for a new men’s swim team, and would grow the roster size from 32 to 38 – bringing in an extra 6 students’ worth of tuition.
Regardless of which plan they choose, Idaho will move from the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) to Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), which reduces its scholarship count from 85 to 63, and reduces other costs as well. That move also reduces revenue, however.
The school currently has approximately 10,000 students, but enrollment is decreasing. Eliminating 3 sports removes 65 students from the school, adding 3 sports would bring in another 60. These accounting methods are often cited by lower-revenue sports as proof that the programs are actually profitable in spite of limited ticket sales or sponsorship revenue; that argument holds strongest in cases of declining or less-than-capacity student bodies.
One downside of this plan according to a member of the administration is that the problem then falls onto the school’s academic support system.
“(Eliminating sports) takes the million-dollar problem in the athletic fund and hands it to me and to the auxiliaries,” Vice President for Finance Brian Foisy said. “If they transfer that deficit problem to me … then I go out to all the deans and support units and we have conversations about cutting those budgets. It simply hands the hot potato to somebody else.”
The Statesman points out several places where the new additions could create scale for the university: they say that women’s swimming coach Mark Sowa has expressed interest in coaching the men, they presented the idea that track and swimming coaches could work with the triathletes, that one of the strength coaches is a former Army marksman and could coach rifle, and most significantly that one of the United States’ most successful cyclists, 3-time Olympic champion Kristin Armstrong, is an Idaho alum.