After Budget Cuts, Cal Baseball Rallies Funds and Swings for the Fences

This week in Omaha, Neb., the University of California men’s baseball team will compete for a national championship at the College World Series, just months after being informed their program would be eliminated at the varsity level along with men’s and women’s gymnastics, women’s lacrosse, and men’s rugby. While a sizeable budget deficit and Title IX gender equity concerns drove the decision to cut the five programs, the resurgence and success of Cal’s baseball program in the face of adversity shows how universities could maneuver around these issues without taking the usual step of cutting high-cost, low-revenue sports.

Mandating that individual sports raise part of their budget takes the decision from the hands of disconnected administrators and gives it to those who care the most: the sport’s players, coaches, and supporters.

The Cal baseball team raised approximately $9.7 million in funds between September and April to make its case for reinstatement (women’s gymnastics and lacrosse and men’s rugby were also reinstated). While the fundraising is impressive, it is the current model at Berkeley that is instructive for other athletic programs. In a budget climate where their losses will no longer be covered by the revenue behemoth of college football, smaller non-revenue programs must adapt in order to survive. Cal’s baseball team certainly solicited philanthropic gifts, but they also engaged the local community, considered limiting scholarships, and even tapped rival Stanford’s boosters to keep their program afloat.

In an era of ballooning costs for sports, other universities in similar budget environments would do well to learn from Cal’s example. While football is the largest generator of revenue and costs (with coaching salaries as just one example) at most universities fielding athletic teams, other sports should be forced to carry more of the burden to maintain sustainability. Four of the five sports slated for elimination found ways to survive financially, and also proved their worth on the field; in addition to the baseball team, the national power rugby team won their 26th national championship in 2011. Eliminating these sports completely for budget purposes, while allowing sports like football to maintain astronomical costs, does not make sense for student-athletes, fans, or universities.

As a former college baseball player (at Division III DePauw University), I realize that despite my affinity for the game, it might not be financially viable as a high-cost, low-revenue sport. However, putting some financial responsibility on individual programs to maintain sustainable revenue and spending levels is a more palatable alternative to the straight slashing of programs. Cutting these programs would have saved money for Cal in the short-term, but in the long-term, would have decreased the status and prestige of the university’s athletic programs. Lower-profile sports can be financially sustainable off the field and generate value for the university on the field. Cal baseball’s resurgence is just the most recent example.

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