An open letter to the Stanford community and the Stanford Athletics family
Marc Tessier-Lavigne, President
Persis Drell, Provost
Bernard Muir, Director of Athletics
One of Stanford’s great sources of pride is our intercollegiate athletics program. Over the course of our storied history, through innumerable days of challenge, triumph and joy, our student-athletes have set the standard for exceptional achievement in both academics and athletics. Cheering on the Cardinal is an integral part of life at Stanford, and the commitment and dedication of our student-athletes serve as an inspiration for fans and followers well beyond The Farm.
As you may know, Stanford currently offers more varsity sports than nearly every other Division I university in the nation. Our goal is to provide excellent support and a world-class experience for our student-athletes in the sports that we offer. Over time, however, providing 36 varsity teams with the level of support that they deserve has become a serious and growing financial challenge.
We now face the reality that significant change is needed to create fiscal stability for Stanford Athletics, and to provide the support we believe is essential for our student-athletes to excel.
In that context, we are writing today with some extremely difficult news. 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 being eliminated as part of this realignment.
This is heartbreaking news to share. These 11 programs consist of more than 240 incredible student-athletes and 22 dedicated coaches. They were built by more than 4,000 alumni whose contributions led to 20 national championships, 27 Olympic medals, and an untold number of academic and professional achievements. Each of the individuals associated with these programs will forever have a place in Stanford’s history.
We will do everything we can to support the student-athletes, coaches and support staff members affected by this decision. We will honor all existing athletics scholarship commitments to the 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 choose to continue their collegiate athletics career elsewhere, however, we will support them in every way possible. The contracts of affected coaches will be honored, and any support staff whose employment is ending will be provided with severance pay. All of the affected sports will have the opportunity to transition to club status after they conclude their 2020-21 varsity season.
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 alternatives before making profound changes in our programs, especially during this difficult time. That process has recently come to 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.
Below, we would like to provide more information about the financial challenge behind this decision, how the 11 sports were chosen and what the future holds for varsity athletics at Stanford.
Financial sustainability & competitive excellence
The decision to discontinue these 11 varsity sports programs comes down primarily to finances and competitive excellence. With so many varsity 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 financial model supporting 36 varsity sports is not sustainable. 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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, while 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.
- 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.
- We have calculated that the total incremental funding needed to permanently sustain these 11 sports at a nationally competitive varsity level exceeds $200 million. There are other significant fundraising priorities across the university and within Athletics. 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.
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. It will ultimately enhance the experience of the remaining student-athletes and increase their likelihood of competing for national championships for years to come. 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.
Why these 11 sports?
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
- Impact on gender equity and Title IX compliance
- 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, 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.
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.
The future of Stanford Athletics
Today’s announcement brings the three of us great sadness, though we realize ours is nowhere near the level of pain and disappointment that our student-athletes, parents, alumni and supporters of the impacted sports are experiencing.
We remain committed to a strong and vibrant varsity athletics program at Stanford, and 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. Our commitment to diversity and gender equity in athletics also remains firmly in place and is supported by this decision.
More information about the issues we have discussed here is available at https://news.stanford.edu/2020/07/08/athletics-faq/. Thank you for reading, and for those of you who are part of the Stanford Athletics family, thank you for your steadfast dedication to the success and well-being of our student-athletes.