Sink or swim—literally.
A corona casualty (or so the university says), the Iowa athletic department slashed four varsity sports this month. Welcome to the chopping block, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s gymnastics, and men’s tennis.
Barta announced the programs’ discontinuation in his standard fare Friday afternoon press release. His explanation: Iowa projects $100 million in lost revenue in 2020-21 without football. “A loss of this magnitude will take years to overcome,” Barta and President Bruce Harreld wrote. “We have a plan to recover, but the journey will be challenging.”
On this journey to financial recovery (borrowing Barta and Harreld’s hyperbolic language), was terminating four non-revenue sports totaling $900,000 in operating expenses the way to go? Insert narrator’s voice: No. No, it was not.
There is a little, ahem, fuzzy math in Barta’s projections. For starters, the Big Ten is committed to playing football this winter or spring; there have been murmurings about a Thanksgiving kickoff (just in time, perhaps, for more Keith Duncan PDA toward Frosty). And, sure, assuming the Big Ten plays a modified eight game slate, there will be some financial hardship. If the Big Ten adopts a bubble format, Iowa will lose season ticket revenue, concessions, and merchandising (with the surging coronavirus numbers in our humble state, Saturdays at Kinnick might have been more pipe dream than reality anyway).
But here’s the thing: The Big Ten’s massive television contracts with ESPN and Fox Sports are the gift that keeps on giving. Because of Jim Delany’s foresight, Big Ten universities “earned 33% of all advertising revenues in addition to 51% of the revenues, including subscriber fees.” The conference’s media contracts topped $759 million in 2018; Iowa collected $55.6 million from conference revenue this year alone. According to Forbes, the Big Ten is college football’s financial benchmark—”no other conference has come close to matching its revenues and exposure since 2007.” Assuming the Big Ten plays some semblance of a conference slate this winter/spring, ad revenue will continue to flow into university and, by extension, athletic department coffers. For a little perspective, college football brought in nearly $1.7 billion in spending on television advertising last year, according to the research firm Kantar. Even with a modified Big Ten schedule, the apocalyptic warnings of college sports’ nuclear winter (looking at you, Gary and Bruce) are overblown.
Barta’s rationalization for dumping men’s and women’s swimming, men’s tennis, and men’s gymnastics is a case of blowing smoke; the Big Ten’s lucrative television contract offers financial security. Moreover, Iowa has $4.5 million in reserves; by comparison, 59% of Power Five athletic departments have zero in financial reserves. Considering the Big Ten’s television revenue (not to mention the athletic department’s financial health), I don’t understand why Barta, with Harreld’s blessing, would unceremoniously dump four varsity sports. Gary, why not consider the financial viability of an eight game college football season before going Edward Scissorhands on Iowa’s non-revenue sports?
If the Iowa athletic department is that hard up for $900,000 (once again, a paltry amount considering the millions the athletic department brings in), may I suggest a little belt-tightening? The Doyle $1.1 million settlement is cringe inducing (don’t get me started on the $6.5 million Meyer/Griesbaum settlement). But more than rehashing Barta’s legal bumbling -- Pat has made a Go Iowa Awesome career out of that -- Barta could have explored other financial options to keep these four varsity sports afloat (bad pun intended). Scrutinizing Hawkeye football scheduling, Iowa shelled out $1.55 million to Middle Tennessee State in 2018 and $1.2 million to Miami (OH) in 2019. By comparison, Iowa paid Northern Illinois, an upper division MAC program, and Wyoming, featuring a future NFL starting quarterback, $1 million in 2017. Why the extra $755,000 combined for MTSU and poor man’s Miami? These two programs, I would argue, are a rung below Wyoming and Northern Illinois. As the saying goes, a hundred thousand here, a hundred thousand there and, pretty soon, you’re talking real money or, in Iowa’s case, the dissolution of four longstanding varsity sports.
As for that Friday afternoon announcement... well, let’s just say that we have a new chapter to add to the Chronicles of Barta. When announcing the devastating news to shell shocked student athletes (many just unpacking in Iowa City), Barta’s address lasted two minutes. He then bolted because, apparently, there was a campus meeting or fundraising call or TPS report more important than, you know, supporting his mourning student athletes. “I found the delivery of the message extremely cold. I felt like we were almost treated like we’re not important. The message was very fast, it was very get-to-the-point,” Sage Ohlensehlen told the Daily Iowan. Barta needed to 1) field questions from his despondent student athletes and 2) show some empathy for their loss. And, sure, a question and answer session would have been uncomfortable—even unpleasant—but it's what good leadership demands. Cue that whole “do it right” tagline.
With our coronavirus reality, university athletic departments face a level of financial uncertainty. The college sports industrial complex needs its high-profile employees, err, student athletes, to perform to keep the well-oiled machine purring. While I understand that economic reality, here’s where Barta and I not so respectfully disagree: Between the Big Ten television trust fund, a revamped football schedule, and a little athletic department ingenuity, there were enough resources, financial or otherwise, to protect men’s and women’s swimming, men’s tennis, and men’s gymnastics. Instead, because of a combination of financial irresponsibility and political expediency, these four sports—and its scholarship athletes—are collateral damage for Barta and UI bumbling.