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The Unintended Consequences of Canceling College Sports

Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Keith Srakocic.

The Ivy League officially announced today that all Fall 2020 sports seasons are canceled, most notably the college football season. Stanford University also announced today that after the 2020-2021 season, they will be terminating 11 of their 36 varsity sports due to severe budget deficits. I think these two independent events will have a joint effect across the country and potentially alter the path of college sports permanently.

First let’s look at Stanford, the school with statistically the most successful college athletics program in the country for the last 25 years straight. Literally. The NACDA Directors’ Cup is an award given to the university with the best collegiate athletic program based on the combined performance in each sports’ national championship or rankings. Of every single NCAA Division I athletic program, Stanford has been the best for 25 straight years. The 11 teams Stanford is cutting have won 20 national championships for the university. Due to a projected $70 million budget deficit over the next three years, however, Stanford, a school with a $27 billion endowment, will discontinue the teams in 2021.

Stanford also consistently boasts its current student and alumni representation at the Olympic games (42 representing in 2008 Beijing, 39 in 2012 London), and 27 of the school’s alumni’s Olympic medals come from the 11 sport teams being discontinued.

At the end of the day, though, an annual budget deficit ranging from about $20 to $25 million is still a pretty massive amount. But it brings up the question of how, without the circumstances of global pandemic, college programs are able to compete when so many teams bring in negative net revenues? It’s a simple answer: college football (and in some cases college basketball). 

Graph courtesy of Business Insider, 2017.

This chart shows the revenue an average Division I school generates from its athletic programs. College football alone generates more revenue than the next 35 best revenue producing college sports combined. What this chart does NOT show, is the expenses each program faces, nor does it show the extensive budget deficits that exist after going beyond college basketball and football – the only two profit producing college sports. 

Canceling a college football season wipes out a lot more than just a school’s NCAAF season. The profits that would be allocated to supporting other sports are gone, so just as Stanford did, say goodbye to plenty of other sports, irregardless of how successful they might be. Plus, smaller conference schools will be hit especially hard. Looking outside the Power-Five conferences shows just how steep the drop off is. Another important note is that the Ivy League is not part of the FBS circuit, so Division III, Division II, and DI FCS schools are probably more likely to cancel seasons than DI FBS schools.

Graph courtesy of Mekko Graphics, 2017.

In almost every conference shown in the chart above, the majority of its revenue comes from TV revenue, and unfortunately it’s not swimming or men’s volleyball that are generating that TV revenue, it’s college football and college basketball. 

These numbers are from 2014, but to put in perspective just how much college sports TV revenue brings in, college basketball and college football are pretty important pieces in the US sports market. And these numbers are before the four team College Football Playoff was established, so I can only imagine the ad revenue generated from NCAAF increased significantly.

Top Sporting Events that generated the highest advertising revenues in the US, 2014:

  • NFL Playoffs – $1.23 billion
  • NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament – $1.13 billion
  • NBA Playoffs – $875 million
  • MLB Playoffs – $360 million
  • NCAAF Bowl Championships – $201 million
  • NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs – $137 million


How will television contracts change, how will the national economy be affected without this flow of cash that reaches all sectors. Canceling college sports can only worsen the dive the US economy has taken.

The Ivy League is the first D1 conference to cancel its fall sports programs, and arguably its the first of a catastrophic chain reaction of events within the college sports world. Back in March, the Ivy League was the first to cancel its men’s basketball conference tournament. Soon, every conference tournament in college basketball was also canceled. The circumstances are certainly different – the amount of unknowing regarding coronavirus was much greater than today, four months later. Nonetheless, one of the key factors in the string of canceled conference tournaments is the fact that so many college leaders graduated from Ivy League schools/previously worked at Ivy League schools, and across the country Ivy League schools are respected as leaders. That list includes the commissioner of the Pac-12, the president of the University of Florida, the president of Michigan, the president of UNC, and many other major schools and conferences. 

While the Ivy League is much better suited to survive financially without its athletics program (Ivy League does not give out athletic scholarships and does not receive significant funding from the NCAA), many other schools aren’t. The implications of canceling a football season for a single school carries over to all of its other athletic programs, especially the school’s worst performing programs from a budget standpoint. No sports means a massive drop in school donations too. In some cases, it might mean the loss of scholarships as soon as a team gets canceled. That’s one of the most important roles college sports plays in this country. Beyond the entertainment and business value, there are over 490,000 student athletes in US colleges and universities, and the amount that are in school because of their athletic scholarship cannot be understated. It’s a road to higher education for thousands who otherwise could not afford it. The reinvestment into the national and global economies from former college athletes is critical, and so many jobs specifically seek graduates that played a college sport as it demonstrates the ability to balance responsibility greater than non-athletes often. Canceling fall sports, and more specifically football, is the first domino in the long line of unintended consequences. 

Without a universal approach (although a universal approach might not be the best option as we see how coronavirus outbreaks play out across the nation right now), the NCAA might be forced to make unfavorable decisions about athletes’ eligibility as well. Do only Ivy League athletes receive an extra year of eligibility, or do they lose a year even though they had no choice? 

If we really want to complicate things, canceling sports for a season might lead to some pretty heavy Title IX violations. Title IX requires an equal amount of opportunity for men and women in college sports. It’s why schools like Boston College have a varsity women’s lacrosse team but not a varsity men’s lacrosse team. If a school or conference cancels an entire season of sports, and that unbalances the number of men’s and women’s sports, I certainly expect lawsuits to pop up, or even worse, sports that have no business getting canceled seeing their seasons ended out of a fight for on-paper equality. If schools have to cancel programs, like Stanford just did, they might be faced with canceling a more successful sport (both financially and athletically) in favor of maintaining the balance in men and women’s teams. 

I’m not arguing that college sports should reopen under unsafe circumstances, but it certainly feels like all the options are not being exhausted in the effort to allow college sports. The unintended consequences go way beyond this year’s fall college sports season. 

Connor Dolan
Connor is co-founder of First And Fan and head of all website operations. He's a die hard Boston sports fan with a passion for sports, media, and all things David Ortiz.