College Sports

As Missouri higher education budget is slashed, sports programs also face cuts

Basketball games and other sporting events at UMKC will be a little quieter this season.

Cheerleaders won’t be on the sideline.

UMKC eliminated the squad in a series of athletic department cuts that are part of funding reductions across higher education in Missouri.

Last week, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens withheld $251 million in spending to make the state’s budget work, including $36 million in higher education funding.

Public colleges and universities at all levels in the state, including the University of Missouri, have been impacted. But only the Tigers play in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and in the lucrative Southeastern Conference at that. In 2015-16, Mizzou received nearly $40 million from conference distribution, mostly from the SEC Network.

No other school in Missouri is plugged into such a revenue stream, and athletic departments have been working for months to shape their 2017-18 budgets knowing they were facing cuts.

It didn’t make tough decisions easier.

Missouri State eliminated its field hockey team and replaced it with beach volleyball. The move is expected to save the school some $300,000.

Positions at some schools were frozen or streamlined. Some programs, like the dance team at Missouri Southern in Joplin, were eliminated.

UMKC’s athletic budget for 2016 was $14.7 million, with 72 percent of that total subsidized by the university. Athletics has been charged with trimming $1.5 million from the 2017 budget. Dropping cheerleading will save some $45,000 next year and impact some 20 squad members, said athletic director Carla Wilson.

Wilson broke the news to cheerleading coach Dawn Todd of the news as the semester ended.

“I was shocked,” said Todd, who was a UMKC student and former cheerleader. “It wasn’t just losing a team, it’s been part of my life.”

Kasey, the school’s Kangaroo mascot, will continue to appear at games.

In all, five full-time positions in athletics were eliminated. UMKC also is looking for ways to cut travel expenses. Its affiliation in the far-flung Western Athletic Conference, with members in California, Washington, Arizona and New Mexico, doesn’t help.

“With nonconference schedules, how can we be more regional and cut down on expenses on that side?” Wilson said. “It’s been very tough work, and it’s not over. Resources are tight. We’re working on this every single day.”

The cuts occur as the Kangaroos are coming off one of their most successful years in athletics. Five teams won WAC championships and five others finished second. The men’s basketball team appeared in postseason play — and won a game in the College Basketball Invitational — for the first time.

The Kangaroos finished second in the WAC Commissioner’s Cup, a composite result of standings and league tournament finishes in all sports — a high-water mark for the school in the conference. Still, UMKC has to tighten its belt.

But it didn’t drop a sport. Field hockey at Missouri State debuted in 1966 and won an Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women championship in 1979. Players who were told of the news in April felt blind-sided. The team played in a stadium that opened in 2014 and for a coach who had just completed her first season.

“We didn’t think it was possible for us to be cut,” said Paige Pashea, a junior from Edwardsville, Ill., and team member. “We had a brand new coach, a brand new field, so we didn’t think it was even possible.”

Missouri State, with a 2016 budget of $26.2 million, also reduced operating expenses in each athletic program by 7-12 percent, cut scholarships in equivalency sports and restructured academic aid to fifth-year student athletes who have used their athletic eligibility. The cuts will save about $1.1 million, but none hurt more than eliminating a sport. The field hockey roster of 17 included 12 scholarship athletes. Beach volleyball has four scholarships.

“Cutting a sport is the worst thing you can do as an athletic director,” Missouri State athletic director Kyle Moats said. “It’s the toughest thing to do and there was not anybody who wanted to do that.”

Even with its SEC windfall, which contributed to $97 million in athletic department revenue for 2016, Mizzou has still been affected by cuts.

After Tigers executive associate athletic director Bryan Maggard left to become the University of Louisiana at Lafayette athletic director, the administrative position was eliminated along with two other full-time jobs for a savings of $367,200.

MU also deferred a series of technology upgrades, which saved $300,000 for the 2018 fiscal year, and reduced the scope of a student-athlete tablet program as well as other expense and equipment purchases, which will save almost $1.4 million during the upcoming year, according to a budget plan released by the school.

Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk says his department can also help in other ways. It pays about $16 million to the main campus for tuition, housing and dining expenses.

“We’re continuing to do more,” he said in May. “I think next year we’re going to send more with dining and housing.”

Cuts aren’t limited to the state’s Division I programs. Northwest Missouri State is coming off one of the most successful years in Division II history, becoming the first program in the classification to win NCAA championships in football and men’s basketball.

According to athletic director Mel Tjeerdsma, winning doesn’t automatically translate to income. Sleeves continued to be rolled up.

“At our level, budgets don’t nearly cover expenses and gate receipts don’t come close to getting you over the hump,” Tjeerdsma said.

All Bearcats coaches and teams have fundraising events, and even that becomes a challenge.

“In a community the size of Maryville, you don’t want to go to the same businesses 12 times. And you can’t have 12 golf tournaments,” Tjeerdsma said.

Beyond funding teams, Northwest is fundraising for the $20 million Hughes Fieldhouse, which will include a football practice field and track.

Central Missouri is dealing with budget pressure by adding … athletes. Athletic director Jerry Hughes said coaches have asked to add non-athletic scholarship walks-ons to their rosters. There will be as many as 60 additional student-athletes in Warrensburg next season. They’ll add to the school’s enrollment, pay tuition, and student fees.

“It’s a win-win, for the university and athletics,” Hughes said.

With the budget cuts across Missouri, schools will take any victory they can get.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

Alec McChesney: 816-234-4096, @Alec_McChesney

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer