The Future of Athletic Departments in Universities

Amidst several seasons of college sports scandals and unexpected shifts in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the future of the traditional university athletic department is likely to look a lot different than it has in recent years. Many university coaches, professors, and athletic department staff have been looking for reform to college sports for some time, and now we might finally see a change (hopefully for the better) in the way things are run. Athletics are an important part of higher education, and we’re hoping departments will continue to get more ethical and have a positive impact on the college experience in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. 


What are some impacts on the future of university athletic departments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic? What will this mean for our student athletes and the sports we love so much?

Changes in Athletic Departments Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic

Sports (particularly non-money makers) are getting cut. 


We’ve seen it at universities across the country: athletic departments are struggling to stay afloat. The LSU athletic department had to lay off employees and cut pay in the wake of tightening budget constraints, expecting to lose $80 million in revenue this year. The university has also eliminated several positions in the athletic department, paring down hiring to only “essential positions” through June 2023. That’s a long projection of cuts, layoffs, hiring freezes, and slimming down for the LSU athletic department.


Unfortunately, many schools are also cutting sports programs, like the Clemson athletic department dropping men’s track and field and men’s cross country. Like LSU, the Clemson athletic department is expecting a projected $25 million resource drop, and it’s hoping that these cuts will help keep the department afloat. 


These necessary cuts are nevertheless detrimental for athletic department staff and student athletes, who are now losing jobs, pay, or the ability to play their sports. Overall, this is not a change for the better, though we hope it will one day (in the near future) “right itself” as sports and budgets get back to normal. 


We expect that there will be cuts across the board for the foreseeable future. Running an athletic department is extremely expensive, and most schools actually spend more to do so than the amount that their “marquee attractions of football and basketball” are able to bring in, according to Best Colleges. In fact, only 25 of about 1,100 schools across the 102 conferences in the NCAA actually made money from college sports in 2019. 


Ultimately, cuts like those at Clemson may ultimately create less monetary pressure on athletic departments to support multiple sports that drain the university’s funds. The new theory in sports might be that each school will do “a few things really well,” as opposed to every school offering every sport to meet the 16-sport requirement of the NCAA. Is this for the better or worse? Only time can tell at this point. This Bloomberg Opinion article makes some interesting points about the potential survival—or death—of some non-money-making sports as well as the era of the “living like kings” athletic directors.

Control may transition from the NCAA to the individual athletic departments. 


Schools were forced to make these aforementioned cuts against the guidelines of the NCAA’s 16-sport requirement. As a result, the NCAA has had to make a lot of individual pardons to help schools react to the financial concerns of the COVID-19 crisis. We’re quickly seeing a transition of power out of the hands of NCAA and into the athletic departments themselves. And this transition makes sense. Not all schools have the same budget and most aren’t run the same way, so having a central governing body for all sports and colleges is a challenge that athletic department heads have been facing for years. 


Moving forward, the NCAA may focus more on running championship tournaments (like the beloved March Madness) and being the backbone for student representation. When it comes to individual rules like transfers, scholarships, and even compensation (as we’ll discuss in the next section), the NCAA may end up having to take a step back. (This is just a prediction. For now, the NCAA is still the ruling power—and for a good reason. Their primary goal is to support student athletes, which they’ll hopefully continue to do moving forward.) 


Did you know how the NCAA plays a role in university athletics? Get all your questions about college sports answered here

Student athletes may start getting compensated. 


In our article about the NCAA football video game, we discussed that we likely won’t see a renewal of the NCAA college football game hit the shelves any time soon since players aren’t getting compensated for their name and likeness (an issue addressed in the Ed O’Bannon case). An AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that 66% of surveyed adults approve of college athletes earning money from endorsements and sponsorships, and 52% thought athletes should receive a cut of media rights as well. Players aren’t necessarily looking for a salary; they just want the right to make money through external sources, like sponsorships or licensing deals. 


Of course, there are two sides to this coin. On the one side, allowing compensation could jeopardize the integrity of the sport and the recruiting process. On the other side, student athletes aren’t “normal” college students; they have a full-time job in their sport. Many people believe that certain sports have become more about money than about the education of the athletes. If the school can bring in revenue, the theory is that, why shouldn’t students (who may be struggling to pay for tuition and other college-related expenses) receive compensation if applicable? 


We’re curious: Do you think the student-athletes you cheer on in your school-spirit gear should get paid?  


In 2019, California passed legislation that, beginning in 2023, colleges in CA can’t prevent students from earning NIL (name, image likeness) compensation. Other states like Florida have quickly followed suit and the NCAA even approached Congress to get similar guidelines passed for all 50 states. That’s because just about everyone—in and outside the athletic department—believes students should be getting paid for their immense amount of time spent on the field or court, particularly if their sport is bringing in money for the department. This does not mean that schools will have to compensate their athletes directly. Rather, it means that athletes will be able to get sponsorship deals or get paid for their name and image being used—like in a video game, for example. 


There are definite pros and cons to the compensation of student athletes. There’s a worry of unfairness between sports (especially between men’s and women’s sports) or a glitch in the integrity of college recruitment. Iterating our conclusion in the last section, we’ll only know the intended and unintended consequences after a lot of deliberation, debates, and decisions have been made. 


There’s a lot of great information about compensation, representation, and centralized leadership in athletic departments following COVID-19 changes in this ESPN article

Student athletes will have more power over their status. 


There are a lot of benefits of being an NCAA athlete. Unfortunately, still, many students feel like their universities don’t care about them beyond their play status. For example, some universities will reduce or remove scholarships if a player gets an injury. Some students have even felt that their universities put them at risk, as was the case this past fall when some universities asked players to come back to school. Students have long been fighting for their representation rights in terms of their status as student athletes.


We hope that the pandemic might help put priorities into perspective for university athletic departments and heads, prioritizing the health, safety, and wellbeing of their students moving forward. We wouldn’t be surprised if there was a student athlete union (which has thus far been a hard “no” from the NCAA), greater health care options, increased negotiating power for students, and even more resources for balancing sports with academics in the future. 

Protecting our athletes 


Athletic departments are often a critical part of the success of a university. Successful departments bring name recognition and talent to a college, while also generating revenue in some cases. More importantly, it offers an athletic outlet for students who want sports to be a part of their college experience. 


Over the past few years, unfortunately, we’ve been seeing a decline in the care for the student athlete first and foremost, but we’re now seeing many athletic departments sitting up and taking notice of the obstacles their athletes are facing on a daily basis. Some departments are ready to take action to better the lives of their athletes, their employees, and their teams, which will ultimately be for the betterment of universities, students, and everyone else who enjoys watching and participating in college sports.