Cincinnati’s reason to drop men’s soccer is more for conference revenue than COVID-19

Back in March 2019, when college athletics were gripped by a beneficent brand of madness and not this current insanity, the members of the American Athletic Conference signed a new television deal with ESPN. All the schools got a decent pay raise and a reasonable amount of security.

And still, for most of them, trying to compete with Power 5 conferences can be like living in one of those big houses in the ritzy neighborhood but lacking the cash to furnish every room. The Southeastern Conference paid its members $43 million for the 2018 fiscal year, most of that coming from its television contracts. The new AAC deal, which runs for 12 years, will pay members $7 million. That’s why, on occasion, AAC teams are going to need to break up an end table to feed the fireplace.

The University of Cincinnati announced on Wednesday it is eliminating its men’s soccer program. In an unprecedented time, with spring sports canceled and the 2020-21 academic year imperiled — or at least uncertain -— because of the COVID-19 pandemic, such a decision has enhanced resonance. It is tempting to assume this decision is related to the wider issues in the world.

It’s not unrelated; but it’s more about UC’s position in college athletics, which comes as a result of past Big East members’ decisions not to remain intact and accept a 2011 ESPN television offer that would have paid members double what Cincinnati will get now, nearly a decade later.

Honestly, very few people in college athletics, or even Cincinnati, knew that UC had a men’s soccer team. The Bearcats played 10 home games in the 2019 season, their last as a Division I program. They drew 6,269 people. Not per game — total.

This is not to ridicule the defunct Cincinnati soccer program. This is just to point out its reality: The program mattered to the players and their families, and maybe to those who had gone through it, and certainly to the coaches it employed — but its universe is unfortunately small. It had become a luxury in an athletic department that now can afford none.

“This difficult decision involved a tremendous amount of thought regarding the young men who chose UC to pursue their degrees and their dreams of playing NCAA Division I soccer,” athletic director John Cunningham said in a statement. “They have worked extremely hard on the field of play and in the classroom and have represented UC the right way. While they might not fully understand this decision, I want them to know that they were truly and conscientiously considered during my deliberations about the future of UC Athletics. We are making this decision now to enable our men’s soccer student-athletes to have an opportunity to play at another institution if they choose to do so.”

What happened here is terrifically similar to Connecticut’s decision to depart the AAC for the 2020-21 year. UConn did not eliminate its football program with that move, and it will continue to support it at the FBS level. But make no mistake about the impact: That was the functional equivalent of deemphasizing the sport.

Cincinnati’s athletics budget for 2018 was about $62 million. Nearly half of that came from direct institutional support — mostly student fees — rather than television or gate revenue. That’s a tough way to make a living in college sports.

Cunningham was hired only three months before the American canceled its men’s basketball championship and the NCAA subsequently called off March Madness and all spring championships because of the pandemic. He might have thought he’d conquered his biggest immediate challenge when football coach Luke Fickell rebuffed interest from Michigan State in early February, but within weeks he’d discovered that, as terrific as Fickell is, the real issues were just beginning.

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Cunningham’s announcement said all current men’s soccer players will have their scholarships honored until the end of their undergraduate careers, and they also are free to transfer without restriction to compete for other colleges. UC will offer assistance in finding new homes for the athletes.

Cincinnati has been sponsoring men’s soccer since 1973. The Bearcats made NCAA Tournament appearances in 1998, 2003 and 2006. They won one conference regular season title.

For the players and coaches who no longer will wear the C-paw logo, the disappointment is profound. Their circumstance is an unfortunate consequence of an athletic department endeavoring to compete with programs that have resources to burn.

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