Stanford Athletics varsity sport reductions: FAQ

General

1. What decision was announced today related to Stanford Athletics?

In consultation with the Board of Trustees, we have made the decision to reduce the breadth of our athletics programs and staffing. Stanford will discontinue 11 of our varsity sports programs at the conclusion of the 2020-21 academic year: men’s and women’s fencing, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball and wrestling. All of these teams will have the opportunity to compete in their upcoming 2020-21 seasons, should the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 allow it, before they are discontinued at the varsity level. Regretfully, 20 of our support staff positions are also being eliminated as part of this realignment.

An open letter to the Stanford community and the Stanford Athletics family

University leadership outlines details of a Stanford Athletics varsity sports reduction.

2. What was the process that led to the decision?

University leaders, the Department of Athletics and the Board of Trustees have engaged in deliberative and detailed discussions for several years about how athletics could remain financially sustainable while also supporting a nationally competitive athletics experience across its 36 varsity sports. Those discussions included a thorough exploration of all potential revenue-generating and cost-saving opportunities.

The elimination of a subset of varsity sports was considered a last resort, only to be undertaken if all other viable avenues had been exhausted. Those deliberations coincided with the harsh new financial realities imposed by COVID-19 on all university operations, which underscored further that Stanford Athletics cannot support 36 varsity sports at a championship level while also remaining financially sustainable.

The difficult decision to proceed with these changes was ultimately made by President Tessier-Lavigne, in conjunction with Provost Drell and Director of Athletics Muir, after extensive consultation and deliberation with other key stakeholders, and with the unanimous support of the athletics executive team and the Board of Trustees.

3. What alternatives to these sports discontinuations were considered?

We have investigated a wide variety of alternatives – ticket sales, broadcast revenue, university funding, philanthropic support, operating budget reductions and many others – and found them insufficient to meet the magnitude of the financial challenge before us.

Over the past several months, Stanford Athletics has undertaken significant cost-saving measures. Our entire athletics executive team and a number of our head coaches, including our head football and basketball coaches, have taken voluntary pay reductions. We are reducing sport and administrative operating budgets to the greatest extent possible, including altering our competition schedules and travel plans for the upcoming academic year. Additionally, the support staff layoffs announced today represent a 10% reduction in our athletics workforce. Even implementing all of these measures, however, we will need to access our limited reserve funds to bridge us through the current economic downturn and the acute near-term impacts the pandemic will have on our revenue sources.

The primary alternative to this decision would have been a broad and deep reduction in support for all 36 of our varsity sports, including the elimination of scholarships and the erosion of our efforts to attract and retain the high-caliber coaches and staff needed to provide an unparalleled scholar-athletics experience. After considering the effects of this model, we determined that operating our varsity athletics programs in this manner would be antithetical to Stanford’s values and our determination to be excellent in all that we do.

While painful, the discontinuation of these 11 sports at the varsity level and the associated reductions in our support staff will create a path for Stanford Athletics to return to fiscal stability while maintaining gender equity and competitiveness.

4. Why is this being announced now?

We understand that the timing of this announcement, in early summer and against a backdrop of uncertainty and change across our country, is certainly far from ideal, as is the method by which we had to deliver the news to our student-athletes and coaches today, via Zoom. However, we felt it was imperative to confront the financial challenge before it worsened, to undertake a deliberate and collaborative decision-making process with our Board of Trustees and campus leadership, and to exhaust all viable alternatives before making profound changes in our programs, especially during this difficult time. That process has recently come to a conclusion, and we wanted to share the news as quickly as possible in order to provide our student-athletes and staff with as much flexibility and choice as possible. Given the timing, we determined that offering these 11 programs the opportunity for one final season of varsity competition in 2020-21 was the right thing to do.

5. Why are so many sports being eliminated?

The decision to discontinue these 11 varsity sports programs comes down primarily to finances and competitive excellence. With so many sports and limited financial resources, we would no longer be able to support a world-class athletics experience for our student-athletes without making these changes.

The average Division I athletics program sponsors 18 varsity sports. In fact, only one university at the Division I FBS level sponsored more varsity sports than Stanford prior to this change, and that institution does so with a significantly larger budget. Many of our peers at the Power Five level are supported by budgets that are much larger than ours while operating far fewer sports. Stanford’s more than 850 varsity student-athletes today represent 12% of our undergraduate population, a far higher percentage than exists at nearly all of our peer institutions.

Over time, however, providing 36 varsity teams with the level of support that they deserve has become a serious and growing financial challenge. Due to the escalating costs of operating such a large athletics department, a structural deficit emerged several years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. That deficit was projected to exceed $12 million in FY21 and to grow steadily in the years ahead. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated recession have only exacerbated the gap; before these sport reductions, our revised forecasts indicated a best-case scenario of a $25 million deficit in FY21, factoring in the effects of COVID-19, and a cumulative shortfall of nearly $70 million over the next three years. These projected deficits could become much greater if the 2020-21 sports seasons are suspended or altered due to COVID-19.

While painful, the discontinuation of these 11 sports at the varsity level and the associated reductions in our support staff will create a path for Stanford Athletics to return to fiscal stability while maintaining gender equity and competitiveness. It will ultimately enhance the experience of the remaining student-athletes and increase their likelihood of competing for national championships for years to come.

6. If donors step forward, can any of these sports retain their varsity status?

The decisions to reduce our sports offerings are final, and any future philanthropic interest in these sports may be directed towards supporting them at the club level, should they establish as a club sport after their 2020-21 varsity campaign.

While Stanford Athletics has many tremendously generous donors, their support simply could not cover the escalating costs of ensuring excellence across the board in our 36-sport model.

7. What does this decision say about the stability and future prospects of Stanford Athletics?

We remain steadfastly committed to excellence in varsity athletics and, in fact, Stanford will continue to maintain one of the highest student-athlete to undergraduate student body ratios in the nation, with nearly 9% of the undergraduate student body continuing to participate in varsity athletics beyond the 2020-21 academic year.

We are confident that these changes will position Stanford Athletics, and our remaining 25 varsity programs, for sustained excellence and leadership in athletics, academics, and education through sport.

8. Will there be more varsity sport reductions, layoffs or furloughs in the future?

We are taking these actions with the aim of providing Stanford Athletics a path to long-term financial stability, and these are the only permanent changes we expect to make to our varsity sport offerings and workforce for the foreseeable future. We are committed to excellence in our remaining 25 varsity sports, and we believe we have the right people in place to support those sports. However, should the COVID-19 pandemic affect the 2020-21 sports seasons significantly, additional workforce reductions (e.g. furloughs) may become necessary.

9. What is the impact of these changes on gender equity and Title IX?

Eliminating opportunities for any student-athlete to compete at the varsity level is profoundly painful, but after careful analysis, we believe that this decision maintains Stanford’s already strong position with respect to federal Title IX guidelines related to gender equity in intercollegiate athletics. Stanford Athletics has been a pioneer in women’s sports and is proud of the 78 national championships won by its women’s teams and the 123 Olympic medals won by Stanford-affiliated women. We will continue to provide equitable world-class opportunities for female and male athletes from around the globe to pursue excellence in academics and athletics.

10. What is the impact of these changes on student-athlete diversity?

Stanford is committed to creating a diverse and inclusive campus community, and that includes in the Department of Athletics. As we evaluated these changes, we placed a high priority on preserving the diversity of the overall student-athlete population. The decision to discontinue these 11 sports will not disparately impact any particular demographic.

Affected student-athletes, coaches and staff members

11. How many student-athletes, coaches and staff members are directly affected by this decision?

Approximately 240 student-athletes and 22 coaches participate in these 11 sports. Additionally, 20 staff positions will be eliminated as part of this decision. Out of respect for the affected staff members, we will not be releasing a list of the layoffs publicly.

12. How will the affected student-athletes be supported?

We will honor all existing athletic scholarship commitments to the affected student-athletes throughout their undergraduate experiences at Stanford, and we hope they choose to remain on The Farm and earn their Stanford degrees. Should any student-athlete choose to continue their collegiate athletic careers at another institution, however, we will do everything that we can to support them.

All student-athletes who elect to remain on their team’s roster for the upcoming 2020-21 campaign will continue to have access to the full complement of academic, medical, performance and coaching services to which they have become accustomed, provided they remain in good standing under NCAA, Stanford Athletics and Stanford University rules.

13. How will the affected coaches and staff members be supported?

The contracts of all coaches will be honored, and any associated staff whose employment with Stanford is ended as part of this realignment will receive severance pay. As a matter of practice, Stanford will not reveal details of those arrangements. Stanford will do all that it can to help these outstanding coaches and staff members continue their careers at other institutions or in other endeavors of their choosing.

14. Why were 20 staff positions eliminated now if the teams are going to continue to compete this year?

Some of the staff layoffs are not directly related to the discontinuation of 11 varsity sports, and are instead related to department reorganization that we believe will increase efficiency while also reducing costs. Others are directly related to the discontinuation of 11 varsity sports, and the associated reduction in staffing needs in certain support areas. We determined it was in the best interest of the department to announce those staff layoffs now, as well. Waiting until the end of the 2020-21 academic year to announce the layoffs would have created an untenable degree of uncertainty and anxiety among our entire staff and further depleted the budget. All affected employees will be paid through the university’s Aug. 31 pay continuation date and will receive severance pay.

The 11 sports

15. Why were these 11 sports selected for discontinuation?

These 11 sports were decided upon after a comprehensive evaluation of all of our sports across a broad set of criteria and considerations, including, but not limited to:

  • Sponsorship of the sport at the NCAA Division I level
  • National youth and postgraduate participation in the sport
  • Local and national fan interest in the sport
  • Potential expense savings from the elimination of the sport
  • Incremental investments required to keep or put the sport in a position to achieve competitive excellence on the national level
  • History of the sport at Stanford
  • Prospects for future success of the sport at Stanford
  • Gender equity and Title IX impact
  • Impact on the diversity of our student-athlete population
  • Impact on the student-athlete experience across all sports, now and in the future

For example, in simply looking at sponsorship of the sports at a national level as one consideration:

  • Of the 11 sports being discontinued, six (lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming) are not NCAA-sponsored championship sports.
  • All 11 sports being discontinued are sponsored by less than 22% of the more than 350 Division I institutions, and nine (men’s and women’s fencing, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, co-ed and women’s sailing, squash, synchronized swimming, men’s volleyball) are sponsored by less than 9%.
  • There are only two other Division I field hockey programs and one fencing program on the West Coast, and there are no other lightweight rowing, sailing, squash or synchronized swimming programs on the West Coast.

Many of these sports currently compete without a full complement of scholarships (e.g. wrestling), coaches and resources. After careful analysis, we concluded there was no realistic path to ensuring that they have all of the resources needed to compete at the highest level without hindering our ability to support our other 25 varsity sports.

16. Were these sports selected because they have not been successful?

The history of the sport at Stanford and the prospects for future success of the sport at Stanford were two of the many factors that were considered. However, many of these programs have been extremely successful in competition. In fact, these 11 sports have won a combined 20 national championships, and student-athletes from these sports have won 27 Olympic medals.

17. Will any of the sports transition to club status?

All of the impacted sports will have the opportunity to compete at the club level after their upcoming varsity seasons are complete, assuming sufficient student interest, but will need to do so in a financially self-sustaining manner that ensures the safety and well-being of the participants. We will immediately begin working with the student-athletes, parents, alumni and supporters of these sports to work toward providing robust opportunities for participation at the club level. Should any of these sports establish as a club program, they will join the ranks of 32 existing club sports programs at Stanford.

18. What will happen if one of the teams is unable to field a full roster or the upcoming season is interrupted by COVID-19?

The 2020-21 academic year will be the final opportunity for these 11 teams to compete at the varsity level. If a team is unable to compete, for any reason, it will be discontinued at that time.

Finances

19. How much money will the Department of Athletics save as a result of this decision?

The cost-savings from these changes will phase in gradually over the next several years, as Stanford will honor its scholarship commitments to all current student-athletes in the 11 sports during their undergraduate years at Stanford, as well as the contracts of the coaches. Once the phasing is complete, athletics will save approximately $8 million annually as a result of these changes, but that does not reflect the entire financial picture, as the existing budget was insufficient to ensure those programs remained or became nationally competitive, and significantly increased investment would have been required. We have calculated that the total incremental funding needed to permanently sustain these 11 sports at a nationally-competitive varsity level exceeds $200 million.

20. Why doesn’t the university use some of its endowment to keep these sports?

While Stanford may be perceived to have limitless resources, the truth is that we do not. In general, athletics has been a self-sustaining entity on our campus, and we are striving to preserve that model in a time when budgetary support for our academic mission is already under significant stress. Academic and administrative units across the university already have been planning budget cuts of up to 10% in response to the university’s constrained resources as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The vast majority of Stanford’s endowment is directed toward specific long-term uses, including need-based financial aid for students, and is not available to backfill an ongoing structural budget deficit in a specific department. In addition, the endowment is meant to last in perpetuity, providing for future generations of Stanford scholars and faculty members.

21. Athletics has its own endowment and a number of generous donors. Why not tap into that money to keep these sports?

While it is true that Stanford Athletics benefits from a robust community of generous supporters, their philanthropy simply could not cover the escalating costs of ensuring excellence across the board in our 36-sport model any longer.

Similar to the university’s endowment, the vast majority of the Stanford Athletics endowment is directed toward specific long-term uses, including scholarships for student-athletes. Even with those endowments and their annual proceeds, Stanford’s varsity athletics budget is smaller than that of many of our athletic peer institutions, most which will still offer fewer varsity sports than will Stanford.

22. Why didn’t Stanford launch a fundraising campaign to fund these sports before making these decisions?

Stanford Athletics benefits from a robust community of generous supporters, but their philanthropy simply cannot cover the escalating costs of ensuring excellence across the board in our 36-sport model any longer.

We have calculated that the total incremental funding needed to permanently sustain these 11 sports at a nationally-competitive varsity level exceeds $200 million. In fact, even after recognizing the full expense savings resulting from this decision, closing the remaining athletics structural deficit and ensuring the continued success of our remaining 25 varsity sports will itself require garnering resources that exceed that amount, and we are fully committed to that endeavor.

23. Did inflated coach salaries and excessive spending in football and men’s and women’s basketball lead to these decisions?

Stanford is competitive in the marketplace for its coaches, but it does not set the market. We are fortunate to have a tremendous roster of coaches across the board, regardless of their level of compensation. Several of them, including our football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball head coaches, took voluntary salary reductions beginning in May.

We will always strive to be prudent and frugal when it comes to our resources and have much to offer coaches beyond compensation. However, failing to remain competitive in the coaching salary market, especially in the expensive Bay Area, would be tantamount to opting out of national-level excellence in athletics.

Most importantly, we will always strive to provide our student-athletes with all of the resources they need to excel academically and athletically. To do so, we have historically needed to stretch our dollars further than many of our peers, especially in the competitive national landscape of intercollegiate football and basketball.

24. How will Stanford Athletics use the savings recognized through these decisions?

In the near term, these savings will simply shrink the deficit we are forecasting. Stanford Athletics will still need to deploy additional short-term cost-saving measures to combat the heightened revenue pressures brought on by COVID-19. As always, we will continue to explore revenue-generating opportunities to support our student-athletes. Over time, this decision will allow Stanford to ensure the continued national-level success of nearly 620 student-athletes.