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Eliminate the Scholarships, Save the Program

When I opened my inbox and saw the subject line "PTC Stony Brook", my heart sank. I immediately knew the men's tennis program at Stony Brook University was over. "PTC" or "Permission to Contact" is a term I have been hearing way too often lately. As the head men's tennis coach at Fordham University, a mid-major tennis program in the Atlantic-10 Conference, I get these notifications from my compliance officer whenever a program is being discontinued so I am allowed to speak to any student-athletes that wish to transfer.

Michael Sowter of Fordham
courtesy, Fordham Athletics
Over the past few years, there has been an alarming pattern of NCAA Division I mid-major programs being cut, and I feel that these decisions are both shortsighted and highly preventable. Recently, men's tennis has been cut from Division I universities such as Western Kentucky, Bradley, IPFW, Southern Illinois, Western Illinois, Hartford, Morehead State, Murray State and Robert Morris. In Stony Brook's case, the America East Conference stopped sponsoring men's tennis in 2014. Thankfully, Binghamton was able to join the MAC, while Stony Brook, Hartford and UMBC transitioned to the Missouri Valley Conference. Unfortunately, in the wake of cuts in tennis programs coming from Southern Illinois, Hartford and UMBC, the Missouri Valley Conference no longer meets the 6-team NCAA minimum and will be forced to eliminate men's tennis. Consequently, without a conference to play in, Stony Brook has decided to cancel men's tennis instead of trying to find a new home.

The schools that are eliminating tennis tend to follow some or all of the following patterns: the university is facing budget cuts; the roster consists mainly of international students; and the athletic director (AD) has been on the job less than three years. Looking at it from a financial perspective, cutting a non-revenue sport makes sense on the surface. Many ADs are faced with balancing a shrinking budget and cutting non-revenue programs is an effortless fix. International student-athletes are also easy scapegoats: utilizing many resources in scholarships and operating budgets, there is little resistance from parents if the program is discontinued, and as work visas become increasingly harder to obtain, they are not always able - or even want - to stay in the United States after graduation. Why invest in a team if they can't or won't have active alumni the same way other sports do?

I understand that these can be complicated decisions, but there is one solution to keeping tennis programs alive, improving college prospects for US tennis players, and increasing involvement from the university and local community: Eliminate the scholarships.

In 2013, Fordham University was faced with a similar decision. As the university decided to reinstitute football scholarships, athletic budgets came under scrutiny, and cancelling the men's tennis program and its $200,000+ annual expense was considered. The team had six international students, and the team had gone through three coaches in four years. Instead of cutting the program, however, the athletic administration decided to save the program but eliminate the scholarships.

Fast forward four years to the current 2016-17 year, and the tennis program now has eleven players on the roster - eight of whom are from the US - and nobody on athletic scholarships. Our operating budget is only 0.2% of the annual Fordham athletic budget, our fundraising revenue has increased by over 50%, and the team currently has a record of 25-16 over the last two years.

This type of success is not just limited to Fordham. Currently, there are a number of teams that flourish without scholarships, and the benefits of keeping those programs alive have been extremely rewarding. The Ivy League (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale), Patriot League (BU, Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette, Lehigh, and Loyola), Boston College, Georgetown and Villanova all operate without athletic scholarships, and they run successful, robust tennis programs that receive significant contributions from alumni, parents and supporters of the program.

Michael Sowter with Pedro Alonso on Senior Day in 2016
courtesy, Fordham Athletics
Looking closer at the makeup of the student-athletes, the 18 institutions mentioned above have 214 men's tennis participants, and 84% of their players are from the United States. If you look at the three remaining men's tennis teams from the former MVC - Drake, Illinois State and Wichita State - their rosters consist of 22 international student-athletes and 3 US student-athletes. Full disclosure, I am from Australia, so I owe my life to the tennis scholarship I received eighteen years ago. I am not anti-international students, I think international students add a wonderful dynamic to college campuses, and I hope all universities can continue to recruit any student they choose. My argument is simply that without the scholarships, more opportunities become available for junior tennis players from the United States looking to play NCAA Division I collegiate tennis.

If we examine this from a financial perspective, we can use SIU as a suitable case study. According to Southern Illinois University statistics, 2017 spring enrollment fell 7.4 percent compared to the previous spring, dropping the student population below 15,0001. If you consider that the average cost of attendance for in-state students at SIU is $25,953, and the average financial aid award is $15,721, recruiting 12 in-state student-athletes on the men's tennis team would bring in $122,7842. If those students were out-of-state, the cost of attendance would increase to $39,602 and the team would bring in $286,572. If you calculate coach Audra Anderson's annual salary of $40,9083, plus a reasonable operating budget of $50,000, the team would still net the university anywhere from $30,000-$195,000 per year. Surely this is fiscally more responsible than cutting the program.

Furthermore, it would be wonderful to see the USTA get involved with this endeavor. An emergency "college tennis endowment" created by the USTA could direct immediate funds to struggling programs as a stay of execution and give coaches, players and administrators time to assemble a long term plan to salvage the program.

Lastly, this is a personal appeal to Athletic Directors and all athletic administrators out there. Please don't abandon our sport! All men's Olympic sports have been ravaged by Title IX and budget cuts, and some ADs see men's tennis as an easy target to put on the chopping block. (Yes, Thorr Bjorn at University of Rhode Island, I'm talking about you). But with a little creativity and commitment to the sport, we have an opportunity to make men's tennis a relevant, viable and popular sport on campus at every level.

UniversityAthletic DirectorDate AD HiredDate MT CutInternational Players (#)
Bradley Michael Cross 1/2010 6/2014 ?
Hartford Anton Goff 5/2014 10/2015 3
IPFW Kelley Hartley Hutton 2/2014 3/2015 7
Morehead State Wayne D. Andrews 1/2005 5/2016 5
Murray State Allen Ward 3/2005 5/2016 5
Robert Morris Craig Coleman 2/2005 4/2014 6
Southern Illinois Tommy Bell 1/2015 1/2017 5
Stony Brook Shawn Heilbron 5/2014 3/2017 6
Western Illinois Matt Tanney 5/2015 12/2015 1
Western Kentucky Todd Stewart 5/2012 4/2014 1

1 http://dailyegyptian.com/65444/news/siuc-spring-enrollment-falls-7-4-percent/

2 http://www.collegedata.com/cs/data/college/college_pg03_tmpl.jhtml?schoolId=1744

3 http://thesouthern.com/news/data/search-by-name-all-siu-salaries/html_0a1075d2-2cef-5e83-a2ae-fde1e2db0a8f.html


Michael Sowter is head coach of men's tennis at Fordham University in Bronx, N.Y.


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Colette Lewis has covered topflight junior events as a freelance journalist for over a decade. Read her weekly column, follow her on Twitter, and and find more of her daily commentary at ZooTennis.

Page updated on Thursday, July 06, 2017
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