Budget cuts in higher education make intuitive sense in a nation still suffering from almost two years of bad economic news.
Yet dozens of schools across the country are making the same decision Pacific did — to add sports rather than reduce them — and have done so for years, The Associated Press learned by reaching out to all 95 of the multisport conferences in the NCAA’s Divisions I, II and III.
Overall, the AP found those colleges plan to add a total of 174 new teams and drop 59 over the next two years.
The reasons aren’t always economic — complying with rules that demand gender equality in sports and that require Division III schools to carry a minimum of 12 sports starting in 2010 also play a role. However, the economy keeps popping up as an important and often critical reason for the expansion, particularly in Divisions II and III, where athletes often don’t receive scholarships.
Adams State in Alamosa, Colo., will add men’s golf, men’s soccer, women’s lacrosse and swimming teams for both sexes. It’s one of 11 Division II schools adding sports for economic reasons, the AP found.
Lake Erie College, east of Cleveland, is bringing on men’s and women’s lacrosse and men’s and women’s tennis this year, its first in Division II.
Georgia’s Columbus State is adding coed rifle, women’s golf, and men’s and women’s track in 2009-10, the largest single-year expansion in the Division II school’s history.
Lake Erie’s student-athlete population is expected to triple, boosting overall enrollment at the 1,200-student college and forcing the school to bolster its curriculum, athletic director Griz Zimmerman said.
For sport-loving students and their parents, the trend means more opportunities and college choices.
Freshman Meredith Howe had never heard of Lake Erie before she was contacted by the women’s lacrosse coach prior to her senior year at Jamesville-Dewitt High School near Syracuse, N.Y. Howe had looked at several colleges and none stuck out. She knew she didn’t want to attend a Division I school.
It turns out Lake Erie was the right fit.
“It was my favorite. It’s tiny but it’s quaint. It was a sweet deal,” Howe said. “I was kind of hoping to pick a school for the sport. I picked Lake Erie because since the program’s new, I would still have a life. Lacrosse wouldn’t be 24-7 for me.”
West Virginia Wesleyan will field a Division II women’s lacrosse team in spring 2011 that athletic director Ken Tyler estimates could generate up to $159,000 in its inaugural year for the 1,200-student college.
“That’s significant for a small private liberal arts school like us,” Tyler said.
Wesleyan plans to bring in 20 new athletes for the first season. Tuition and room and board for one year at the school is about $30,000.
The school says it will wind up in the black even after it divides scholarships worth a total of $150,000 among the athletes. The costs also include the team’s $27,000 budget and the $30,000 coach’s salary.
NCAA records show the number of college athletic teams has been increasing for years, and that while the recession scaled back some schools’ plans, it hasn’t stopped them from expanding.
Starting in 2010, Division III schools with enrollments of 1,000 or more must sponsor a minimum of 12 sports, up from 10 — six each for gender. A tenet of Division III membership is having a variety of athletic participation opportunities and “the legislation was adopted to really emphasize the importance of that philosophy,” said Dan Dutcher, the NCAA’s vice president for Division III.
Although the average Division III school has 16.5 varsity teams, as many as 35 colleges would have to add sports in order to meet the new minimum, Dutcher said. Most of the 35 have submitted plans showing “they’re well on the road to preparing for that increase.”
Pat Coleman, editor and publisher of the D3sports.com network based in Minneapolis, said just five Division III schools have dropped football since 1997, while an AP count found 24 Division III colleges that have either added it in the past decade or plan to soon.
“A school that starts football tends to bring out between 80 and 120 freshman for the first year. You have to look at the bottom line, in Division III, everybody’s paying tuition, they’re getting whatever they’re getting in financial aid, but the school isn’t giving scholarships,” Coleman said. “So that money goes to the bottom line.
“A lot of kids who play that first year don’t play all four years. Usually that graduating class that comes in at 120 ends up at about 20-25. But a lot of the kids stay at the school.”
LaGrange College in Georgia shows how the plan works.
The school decided to introduce football in 2006 to increase male enrollment. Although they were winless in their first two seasons, the Panthers finished 9-2 last season and were among the 32 teams that went to the division playoffs.
Along the way, they’ve brought in about 100 students each year, athletic director Phil Williamson said.
Offensive lineman Aaron Hill was even elected student body president last year. Hill originally intended to attend the U.S. Military Academy before a recruiting visit to LaGrange changed his mind.
“I’m a 5-11 offensive lineman. There’s not a big demand for me at places that give scholarships,” said Hill, a senior. “It was either go to a private school or don’t play at all.
“I wouldn’t have come to this school if not for football. It was exciting to think that we could build a tradition. We came in not knowing anything, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.”
Back at Pacific, finances are a large part of the picture. Pledges are being sought from alumni, so that the school won’t need to tap its institutional budget for the estimated $1.5 million in startup costs. After that, the school hopes to eventually net about $500,000 a year from football.
The school hopes to attract as many as 90 young men to its student body of just over 3,000 by adding football in 2010.
“For us, it is going to be a way to avoid gloom and doom, to be perfectly honest, because we are a tuition-driven and enrollment-driven institution,” said Ken Schumann, athletic director at the Division III school. “So it’s going to be a big shot in the arm for us.”
When football was dropped, the school was competing in a conference with much bigger schools, which meant losing seasons and low interest. Next year, the Boxers will play against similar-sized colleges in the Northwest Conference.
Not everyone connected to the school is supportive, however. Rebecca Weaver, a 1998 graduate, says she doesn’t believe the sport is a good fit for the school, economically or philosophically.
“I guess the question is, do you want students to pick a college based on whether they have a football program?” she said.
But Jeff Grundon, who was a wide receiver for the Boxers and vividly recalls when the sport was dropped in 1992 — he was an assistant coach — believes that football will enhance the overall university experience.
“I’m excited for the school. I’m excited for the alumni,” said Grundon, who stayed at Pacific and works in the admissions office. “And I’m excited myself — just to go to the games, whenever that takes place, I’ll be right there.”
“It’s funny,” he added, “how things kind of repeat every so often.”