Lindenwood's elimination of nine varsity sports says a lot about the state of college athletics
From rethinking a university to rebalancing it in less than two years
One week after Black Friday, Lindenwood University staged its own Black Friday, announcing late that day it will
eliminate discontinue nine NCAA sports - men’s lacrosse, men’s swimming & diving, men’s tennis, men’s indoor track & field, men’s outdoor track & field, men’s wrestling, women’s field hockey, women’s gymnastics, and women’s swimming and diving - one year after reclassifying to become NCAA Division I.
As the “haves” in Division I athletics eschew years of tradition for megaconferences, multi-million dollar coach buyouts, NIL deals, and transfer portals, many of the remaining Division I schools face a different competitive reality.
The Lindenwood Lions, located in St. Charles, Mo., had been on the fast track to athletic competitiveness, spending less than a decade in NCAA Division II after joining the association from the NAIA during the 2013-14 academic year. The school used Collegiate Sports Associates to study a potential move to Division I, which it subsequently announced in February 2022. On March 23, 2022, Lindenwood added men’s ice hockey as a competitive Division I sport beginning in fall 2022, giving the Lions 30 NCAA sports, considerably more than the 14 required by the NCAA to be in Division I (the NCAA requires 16 to be classified as FBS).
Thirty sports were supported by an athletic budget of $15.8 million in 2021-22 (the most recent reporting year), according to the EADA website. As a comparison point, the University of Alabama and its $200+ million athletic budget sponsors just 21 sports.
Looking back at the school’s announcement to reclassify to Division I, in a published letter on the athletic website on February 23, 2022, President John Porter stated unequivocally, “Lindenwood does not have plans to reduce the total number of sponsored sports.” In that letter, titled “Rethink What You Think About Lindenwood University,” President Porter also talked enthusiastically about joining the Ohio Valley Conference.
Fast forward to this past Friday when the school struck a decidedly different tone. A closer reading of this week’s announcement suggests this is not solely about sponsoring too many sports. President Porter’s December 1, 2023 letter indicates the university is “embarking on a broader initiative to rebalance our investments in staffing across various university divisions.”
In fact, as part of that letter’s FAQ section, President Porter states, “The university is working to rebalance investments in athletics, academics, and staffing while carefully monitoring expenditures to create an environment where excellence flourishes in all aspects of university life.” The part about staffing and monitoring expenditures is posted in italics for emphasis on the website. In other words, Lindenwood is wrestling with the same challenges facing hundreds of higher education institutions.
In July 2020, I analyzed the language schools used when making decisions to “discontinue” sports, and suggested some best practices based on my background and image repair literature, including avoidance of certain words and stressing student experiences. Lindenwood was textbook in its external announcement, referring to the efforts as “Rebalancing Lindenwood’s Resources.” The release occurred on a Friday, the typical take out the trash day for PR professionals. The school posted a FAQ section that helped end speculation about whether private fundraising could save these sports.
Lindenwood went from rethinking the university to rebalancing resources in less than two years. So, what happened over the past 22 months to force the decision to cut nine varsity sports?
Two obvious reasons jump out at me. The first is enrollment. Declining enrollment was cited as the primary catalyst for Division II The College of Saint Rose’s announcement last week that it would cease operations at the end of the spring 2024 semester. It is possible a similar reality is facing Lindenwood. To be clear, I don’t know anyone at Lindenwood (except one of the athletes impacted by the cuts and two more athletes committed to attend there next fall).
Athletic director Jason Coomer, who began at Lindenwood after the decision to reclassify to Division I, was interviewed by Collegiate Sports Connect at the 2023 NACDA convention. He was asked about the relationship between athletics and admissions on campus and the 20 percent Lindenwood students as athletes. “Our enrollment is growing,” Coomer said. “Our general student body… those numbers are climbing.”
Examining the school’s published Common Data Sets beginning with the 2016-17 year, however, tells a different story. At that time, Lindenwood operated two campuses, one in Missouri and one in Illinois. The school reported 7,549 total undergraduate students, including 5,855 on its Missouri campus. Lindenwood closed its LU-Belleville (Ill.) campus after the 2018-19 academic year, and allowed all students to transfer to the St. Charles, Mo. campus.
Enrollment in 2019-20, the first year of operating just one campus, was reported at 5,668 full-time and part-time undergraduate students. For the year 2022-23, campus enrollment was reported at 4,808 full-time and part-time undergraduate students. Lindenwood did announce a Fall 2023 freshman class at 805, the largest in school history.
The decision to eliminate nine varsity sports affects 284 student-athletes. It is hard to see the Fall 2024 freshman class topping 805 with the reduction in sports teams, so administration must believe the reduction in athletic expenses will be greater than whatever reduction in tuition and room and board revenues occurs by having fewer students. Prominent sport economist Andy Schwartz voiced on Twitter that he doubts these decisions will save money.
A second item to consider is conference affiliation. The Ohio Valley Conference makes complete geographic sense. But it does not make much sense given the sports sponsored. The OVC does not sponsor championships for lacrosse, swimming & diving, wrestling, gymnastics, or field hockey, all sports Lindenwood is dropping. The lacrosse teams (Lindenwood is not cutting the women’s team), for example, compete as affiliates of the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Nor does the OVC sponsor ice hockey, but that does not seem to be a concern as the Lions men’s ice hockey team will travel to eight states, including Arizona, Colorado, and Massachusetts, to find competition this season. The women’s ice hockey team earlier this season played in Fairfield, Conn., Rochester, N.Y., and Syracuse, N.Y. in three consecutive weekends.
In the school’s FAQ, the limitations of the OVC were cited as a reason for the decision, which is curious considering how excited the school was to join the conference in February 2022.
I wrote about single-sport conferences in June 2020, and the potential for regional conferences to reduce athletic expenses in Division I. I still believe this is a viable solution and, in the wake of the megaconference trend in which schools from Los Angeles to New York compete in the same conference, I have begun to see others discuss this idea publicly. Arizona State professor Victoria Jackson and I share a similar view that the future of college athletics may involve Olympic governing bodies running college athletic competitions.
Lindenwood’s announcement certainly caught many off-guard. Jason Bryant, a sportswriter who focuses on collegiate wrestling, called the decision “piss poor” on X. He noted the wrestling program, which was third in Division II in 2021, did not have a home dual meet in 2022-23. Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, was quoted by KSDK-TV in St. Louis, “there’s no doubt the administrators are faced with really challenging times out there” and pledged to engage in dialogue with university administrators.
SwimSwam News, an online media source devoted to covering all levels of swimming, noted Lindenwood men’s team placed second last year in the Summit League, its first year in NCAA Division I, while the women’s team placed third.
Inside Lacrosse called the decision to drop men’s lacrosse “sad” on its Instagram account, and its CEO Terry Foy noted on Twitter 20 lacrosse players entered the transfer portal on Friday.
It was, indeed, a sad day for the nearly 300 affected athletes (and many more who recently signed National Letters of Intent for next year), and it is counter to the focus of broad sport sponsorship Coomer talked about in the NACDA interview. But it might also be the new reality in athletics and higher education, as the externalities of the decisions made by the “haves” work their way to the rest of Division I.