Over the past four months, 22 Division I athletic departments have collectively announced the discontinuance or suspension of 29 men’s sports affecting nearly 550 athletes (using FY19 EADA data) and 19 women’s sports affecting more than 250 athletes (using the same data set). Those figures do not include eight programs at Bowling Green, Brown, and Alabama-Huntsville which were cut and subsequently reinstated. Nor do they include the total number of athletes impacted by the discontinuance of indoor track and field or cross country programs since EADA lumps all those participants into one number.
As the effect of the pandemic advanced and athletic directors and presidents arrived at the decision to cut sports, the method by which the news was communicated, and the messages embedded therein, also evolved. In order to understand how messaging changed over time, I analyzed the official news releases posted on each of the 22 schools websites to see what themes and commonalities emerged and how those evolved.
Only three Division I universities cut sports in the first six weeks (through the end of April) after the cessation of college athletics: Old Dominion, Cincinnati, and Wisconsin-Green Bay. And while ODU and Green Bay both mentioned the coronavirus as impacting their decision, all three schools suggested other factors contributed to the decision. ODU referenced a six-month study of the athletics program performed by an outside consultant when it announced the discontinuance of wrestling. Cincinnati cited “profound challenges and widespread uncertainty” in its decision to cut men’s soccer, though media reports noted the Bearcats had not replaced its head coach following the season.
Green Bay’s decision on April 24 to indefinitely suspend its men’s and women’s tennis programs was the first announcement to directly cite the pandemic. “The final decision to suspend sponsorship of the tennis programs was based on several ongoing challenges hindering the growth of the program, as well as the current financial constraints placed on Green Bay Athletics due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The program challenges included lack of an on-campus practice facility and one head coach for both teams.
As the calendar transitioned to May and the reality hit that athletics would not return in the spring, and might not return in the fall, nine Division I athletic departments announced a total of 28 sport cuts. Six of those sports were later reinstated. Florida International did not publicly release information around its decision to cut indoor track (outdoor track was not affected).
With the exception of Brown University, each athletic department blamed the decision to eliminate a sport on the pandemic, employing language around “unprecedented financial impact” and desire to stabilize the athletic department financially and position the department for future success. It is worth noting that while Bowling Green did not mention the pandemic in its initial decision to drop baseball on May 15 (it referenced a financial crisis), however BGSU did allude to the pandemic directly in its release announcing the reinstatement of the team two weeks later.
Analyzing these statements using William Benoit’s typology of image restoration theory, initially proposed in 1995, we are able to identify three clear approaches used by athletic departments. The most prominently used strategy was to evade responsibility. Administrators positioned their decision as being provoked by the pandemic. Simultaneous to those, statements attempted to bolster the decision by underscoring future stability. Through this strategy, athletic departments sought to emphasize positive aspects of the decision.
Other common aspects which emerged in May included the use of a question-and-answer document to supplement original release. This tactic allowed athletic departments the ability to employ transcendence, another of Benoit’s strategies, by anticipating potential stakeholder questions and framing responses in a manner which benefits the athletic department and minimizes the impact of the decision.
App State’s Q and A document announcing the discontinuance of men’s soccer, men’s tennis, and men’s indoor track is a good example of this. In the document, App State stresses how the decision moves the athletic department closer to its peers while not impacting fundraising or existing construction projects. The document also stressed the role of athletics within the larger university structure, and the communication process regarding the decision.
For the nine universities which announced sport cuts in June (including Connecticut where the cuts won’t take effect until FY22), the strategies and tactics largely mirrored the approach taken by universities in May, with a couple of exceptions. Two schools from the Big Sky which eliminated their men’s and women’s tennis programs – Northern Colorado and Southern Utah – both cited recent legislation passed by the conference allowing member institutions more flexibility with regard to which sports they must sponsor. It can be argued UNC and SUU were both attempting to shift the blame by suggesting the Big Sky conference rule aided the decision.
SUU, which did not mention the pandemic specifically in its release, also bolstered its decision when its president stated, “By reducing the number of athletic offerings by two, we can provide a higher level of support to our students and improve the experience for our fans.” UNC, meanwhile, also used lack of facilities to justify its decision.
Most recently, Boise State cut baseball and women’s swimming and diving and, in so doing, left no doubt where the blame rested: “Following a detailed review of Boise State Athletics’ budget as a result of financial challenges compounded by COVID-19.” Baseball, it should be noted, was in its first year following reinstatement of the sport discontinued in 1980.
When deciding on a headline for their news release, 10 universities stated in the headline which sport was being eliminated. No university used the words “cut” or “eliminate” in their headline, preferring instead to use “discontinue” or “suspend” to describe the activity.
Akron, Bowling Green, Brown, and UConn all used a generic approach, suggesting the decision was part of a larger strategy. Brown’s headline was “New initiative to reshape, improve competitiveness in Brown varsity and club athletics.” Bowling Green packaged news of baseball with the incorporation of recreation and wellness into athletics as part of an “athletics restructuring.”
Five universities – Central Michigan, East Carolina, App State, Wright State, and Boise State – used the exact same language to announce their decision: “<university> athletics announces program change.” In a sense, I get it. The headline is benign yet descriptive enough, and not likely to cause immediate visceral reaction.
Several additional interesting findings were observed. Alabama-Huntsville, Hampton University, Winthrop, and Arkansas-Pine Bluff, for example, both identified a number of other universities which had already cut sports as a way to show their actions were not unique. Sort of a strength in numbers approach to reduce offensiveness of the act.
Many universities stressed the total number of sports they continue to sponsor as another means to, perhaps, reduce offensiveness of the act. Southern Utah emphasized this point as a net positive, stating it can now “focus its available resources on the remaining 15 sports, and provide a more competitive experience to the student-athletes.”
Furman also redirected the focus of the announcement, stating it would “push forward together with a strong, 18-sport athletics department that demonstrates academic excellence, financial stability, gender equity and sustainable competitive success with an emphasis on revenue generation and philanthropic support.”
In both of those instances, I think the tactic backfires. What I read with Southern Utah’s statement is, “now that tennis is gone, we can make the experience better for our remaining athletes.” Similarly, Furman is suggesting baseball and lacrosse did not contribute to academic excellence, financial stability, gender equity, or competitive success. That hardly seems the appropriate message to send to student-athletes as they pack their things and look for an alternative place to continue their athletic identity. It seems hypocritical to express regret in one sentence, but talk about how the action benefits other sports in the next sentence.
Speaking of athletic identity, I was pleased to see some schools acknowledge the impact the decision has on the mental health of student-athletes whose lives were turned upside down. Akron published a phone number in its FAQ document to which student-athletes could phone for sport psychology support. Similarly, Central Michigan published a phone number for the campus counseling center, as did Bowling Green. UConn offered mental health services to students as needed.
Finally, several schools attempted to immediately put to rest any thought of private fundraising being used to save reinstate sports, as was observed with Bowling Green baseball and Alabama-Huntsville men’s ice hockey. This transparency, while perhaps unpopular, hopefully allows the university to avoid repeatedly being asked to answer the same question.
UConn called private fundraising “not a sustainable solution.” Furman was definitive in its FAQ about the ability for donor support to save the sports. “Unfortunately, it will not, due to the need to achieve financial sustainability and a more appropriate sports profile for the institution.”
There is no perfect and non-offensive way to disclose negative news. The best any athletic department can hope to do in this situation is show compassion and explain the decision in relatable terms. As a former sport public relations practitioner and co-author of a textbook on the subject (a third edition available in early 2021), I would advise organizations to focus on: using FAQs to anticipate questions and respond in language which the organization controls, realizing the potential mental health trauma the decision causes (doing so acknowledges the human side of a financial decision), and avoiding ambiguity by providing transparent and declarative statements.