Faced with a massive deficit -- only exacerbated by the economic pain of coronavirus shutdowns -- the University of Connecticut’s athletics department is making cuts.
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UConn’s board of trustees Wednesday approved what the school said is a temporary financial plan for fiscal year 2021, which included eliminating several sports teams -- men’s cross country, men’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and women’s rowing -- in an effort to save around $10 million.
“The university -- and I in particular -- recognize the power of athletics to transform the lives of student-athletes and to rally students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and fans across Connecticut -- and around the world -- as one community,” school President Thomas Katsouleas told the school’s board of trustees Wednesday.
“We are faced with balancing that power with long-standing challenges and widespread uncertainty that have required programs nationwide to become more efficient and focused on areas of strength and opportunity to position student-athletes for success in competition and in the classroom.”
Several coaches who were worried about their programs being on the chopping block spoke during Wednesday’s board meeting. The last one, women’s rowing team coach Jennifer Sanford, already knew her fate. She said she got a call from the school’s athletic director Tuesday that blindsided her.
“Had I been notified before 1:30 p.m. [Tuesday] that my sport was on the table to not continue being supported by the division of athletics, I certainly would’ve had more rowing alumni participate in this call … and as much as the $10 million cut showed strong signs that sports would have to be eliminated, I did not believe that rowing would be part of this proposal,” Sanford said. “Obviously, I was mistaken.”
Sanford thought her sport would be safe because she said NCAA Division I rowing programs are typically kept off the chopping block, often in an effort to stay in compliance with Title IX, particularly at schools with football programs.
“Communication from the department of athletics about the direction that would be taken was minimal, and it’s clear that the university has made the decision to support the football team moving forward despite the financial strains that it has caused,” she said.
Katsouleas said that these sports will no longer be sponsored by UConn after the 2020-21 academic year but that the scholarships of players in the eliminated programs returning to the school will be honored.
Amid declining ticket revenue for a football program that’s won just three of its last 24 games, UConn has reported to the NCAA an athletic department deficit of $42.3 million.
Katsouleas cited the uncertainty of the pandemic as a reason for the budget reduction, but he also acknowledged that this was at least two years in the making.
“UConn began its self-review of several objective measures as far back as 2018, and our inquiry has always focused on the long-term interest of UConn athletics rather than just the challenges immediately before us,” Katsouleas said in comments prepared for the board that were sent to Connecticut Public Radio but not read aloud.
School officials also addressed the economic impact the coronavirus is having on the school. A University website pointed to a $40 million shortfall for fall 2020, which could balloon to an estimated $63 million if full student capacity on campus is not reached by spring.
A plan to return students to campus for the fall semester that was made public earlier this month was also discussed Wednesday. It includes in-person classroom learning capped at 30% occupancy.
A school spokesperson has told Connecticut Public Radio that UConn refunded students around $30 million in unused room and board on a pro-rated basis after it moved to keep kids off campus in March in order to mitigate COVID-19 exposure.