After a Reprieve, Talk of Sports Cuts Is Back on the Table

Northern Iowa’s men’s basketball team reached the Sweet 16 last spring, but budget woes could spell big problems for the university’s athletics program. (David Ulrich)

Two-hundred grand. That’s about how much money the University of Northern Iowa’s athletic department would lose in annual general-fund support by the year 2015 under a new university budget proposal. According to the university’s president, cutting much more than that seemingly modest amount could lead to the elimination of all 17 sports.

It’s been a while since we’ve heard much buzz about colleges eliminating sports, but the news out of Northern Iowa shows just how tenuously financed some athletics programs are. With states like Iowa and others suffering continued budget woes, and the potential loss of federal stimulus dollars looming, I wonder if we’ll be hearing more stories like this one.

Northern Iowa seems to be in a tougher spot than most athletics departments. Last year it needed to patch a $400,000 shortfall, roughly the cost of its baseball program, so it eliminated the sport. Now the department, which has an $11.6-million budget, 38 percent of which comes from the general fund, must reduce its reliance on state support. Further budget shortfalls could threaten the university’s Division I status, which could cause it to eliminate varsity sports altogether, Benjamin J. Allen, the university’s president, told The Des Moines Register.

Northern Iowa is feeling heat from lawmakers who’ve seen athletic departments at Iowa State University and the University of Iowa wean themselves off state dollars. This year members of the state’s Board of Regents considered an elimination or reduction of sports subsidies at Iowa’s public universities.

Eliminating athletics altogether seems pretty far-fetched. After all, Northern Iowa’s Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this past spring—the Panthers knocked off top-seeded Kansas in one of the tournament’s biggest upsets—should count for something. According to the university, the team’s tournament success led to a 40-percent increase in inquiries from prospective students this year.

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