Cutting sports is ‘last resort’ as Cal Athletics faces budget deficit

Photo of Memorial Stadium
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Back in 2018, UC Berkeley’s central campus took on more than half of Cal Athletics’ debt from Memorial Stadium renovations. The athletic department began making debt payments of just under $9 million annually, rather than its previous $18 million. It seemed for a while as if the sports budget was back on the right track, moving forward from 25 years of deficits ranging from $10 million to $25 million, according to Chancellor Carol Christ’s letter in the winter 2019 California Magazine.

But today, as UC Berkeley faces an approximately $340 million financial shortfall in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cal Athletics is largely left to its own devices. 

While the department will still receive debt support for the upgrades to Memorial Stadium, some of the Bears’ highest-paid coaches have already accepted voluntary salary cuts in order to keep athletes’ scholarships funded.

Director of Athletics Jim Knowlton acknowledges the blatant financial issues, which leave his department with approximately $50 million in revenue losses this year, but he has no plans to discontinue intercollegiate programs.

“I’m not thinking about cutting sports. It’s not one of the branches or sequels we’re looking at,” Knowlton said in an Aug. 11 virtual press conference. “We’re going to continue to support 850 student-athletes in 30 sports.”

The athletic director reiterated his financial commitment to Cal student-athletes in an Aug. 21 press release, stating that regardless of their choice to participate in voluntary workouts and team meetings, Bears will receive the same scholarship support they were promised.

Christ referred to cutting sports as a “last resort” when the campus took on half of Memorial Stadium’s debt two years ago, and her stance has not wavered. Regardless, as the pandemic has significantly altered plans in 2020, her perspective may shift as budget deficits rage on. After all, if anything could force a “last resort” option, it’s a global pandemic.

The University of Iowa, which competes in the Big Ten Conference and also has a large public endowment, announced the discontinuation of its men’s and women’s swim and dive programs, as well as men’s tennis and men’s gymnastics. Across the Bay, Stanford recently confirmed it will remove 11 varsity programs because of pandemic-induced shortages. Major conference schools will likely continue to follow suit, but Cal stands firm that it will not fall in that line.

And why should it? Six months ago, Cal’s sports revenue was trending upward. The Axe came back to Berkeley, both the men’s and women’s basketball teams were on the rise and the budget was getting straightened out, according to Knowlton.

While six months may feel like years ago in this day and age, Knowlton reminded the media that ultimately, Cal’s upward trend will return soon enough.

“I really do believe that 12-18 months from now, we’re going to be back in that same spot,” he said. “You’d hate to make long-term decisions for a relatively short-term problem.”

As we know, Cal sports are gone for now. Yet in spite of every hit 2020 has dealt, all 30 are here for the long run.

Ethan Waters is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ewate1.