Mike Burns wasn’t thinking about himself Friday. His heart was with the men’s gymnastics team at Iowa, one of four teams abruptly axed by the Hawkeyes as they wrestle with a massive budget deficit caused by COVID-19.
The Gophers men’s gymnastics coach began his career as a Hawkeyes assistant, so Burns felt the loss keenly. But Iowa’s elimination of the program, along with its men’s and women’s swimming and diving and men’s tennis teams, also raised an alarm bell. As athletic departments around the country face financial shortfalls, schools are considering cutting sports as a way to reduce costs — and Iowa’s decision brought that fact uncomfortably close to home.
“Does it concern me? Heck, yeah,” Burns said. “As soon as you start to eliminate opportunities, where does it end?”
In a letter released Friday, Iowa officials said the postponement of this fall’s football season will slash revenue by $100 million. They project an athletic budget deficit of $60 million to $75 million this year. The four sports that were cut will disband at the end of the 2020-21 season.
While the Gophers have not announced plans to eliminate any sports, athletic director Mark Coyle has said “everything is on the table” as the school deals with the economic pain inflicted by the pandemic. The Gophers sponsor 25 sports, fourth-most in the Big Ten, on a $123 million budget that ranks eighth in the league. The athletic department has projected a loss of $75 million if sports are postponed until January 1.
“Our financial reality looks different now,” Coyle said earlier this month. “It’s going to require all of us to be very strategic in our thought process and how we move forward.”
Friday afternoon, one Hawkeyes athlete from Minnesota — men’s tennis player Nikita Snezhko of Plymouth — already was preparing to transfer. Burns was lamenting the loss of one more member of the men’s college gymnastics fraternity, and arranging an emergency Zoom meeting for coaches of the 14 remaining programs to discuss their survival.
“It’s devastating,” said Burns, president of the College Gymnastics Association. “Those poor kids at Iowa have been in the sport their whole lives, and nobody saw the end coming. It’s been an emotional day.”
The website mattalkonline.com is keeping a running tally of Division I programs that have been cut because of COVID-19. Iowa’s announcement brought the total to 81 since April 2.
By the site’s count, tennis has lost the most teams — 11 on the men’s side and nine on the women’s — while 10 swimming and diving programs have been eliminated, five from each gender.
Snezhko, a junior who played No. 2 doubles and No. 5/No. 6 singles last season, was blindsided by Friday’s news. He heard it in a text message from a teammate, just days before the Hawkeyes were scheduled to start workouts.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,”’ said Snezhko, an Armstrong High School grad. “Then our coach got in touch with me and said the program just got cut, and I kind of broke down crying.
“[Last spring] was probably our best season, and we were on our way to making NCAAs as a team. I had been playing the best tennis of my life. Now, with COVID and the program getting cut, it’s probably the worst tennis year of my life. I can’t put it into words.”
In their letter, Iowa officials said it will take “years to overcome” the financial losses. “We believe this path is necessary to strengthen athletics,” it read, “and position our programs for future success with the resources we have.”
According to Snezhko, athletes were told they could compete in a final season next spring and keep their athletic scholarships, but he plans to enter the NCAA transfer portal.
Burns said men’s gymnastics coaches are focused on reducing expenses to improve their programs’ chances of survival. A typical budget runs between $600,000 and $1.2 million per year. One significant cost — travel expenses — could be eliminated by holding virtual meets, in which each team performs routines at its own gym, scored by judges watching a livestream.
The NCAA currently requires teams to compete in the same venue, so it would need to change its rules for virtual meets to count. But Burns said the technology is almost ready, and Friday’s news will add more urgency.
“The process is coming along rapidly,” he said. “It’s amazing how fast things happen when you have a crisis on your hands.”
Jim Paulsen contributed to this report.