Story by Chris Graham
High gasoline prices are hitting everybody where it hurts – from people cutting back on vacations to businesses cutting back on seminars and conferences and other nonessential travel.
But … college sports?
Yes, it is true – gas prices hovering in the $2.50- to $3- to $3.50-a-gallon range for several months now are leading to cutbacks in the sports world.
If you don’t think I’m being on the up-and-up here, just ask somebody on the varsity men’s tennis team at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg.
Oh, that’s right – you can’t, because EMU doesn’t have a varsity men’s tennis team anymore.
“Budgeting is always a difficult portion of the work of an athletic director – particularly when costs that we can’t really control move higher than what the school is allowing us to grow by,” said Dave King, the athletics director at Eastern Mennonite, which decided this spring to drop men’s tennis as a varsity sport.
The program will live on as a club sport – which will allow tennis players at EMU to compete in a limited number of intercollegiate contests, though outside of the purview of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, of which the university is a long-time member.
King said that rising gasoline costs led to a 9 percent increase in travel-related expenditures for the Eastern Mennonite University athletics department in the 2006-2007 academic year.
“When you’re allowed a certain amount of growth, and that growth is totally eaten up in other things that really are beyond our control, it makes it a little bit of a challenge – and so as we all have to do in our own lives, we have to figure out how best to operate with the resources that we’ve been allotted,” King said.
The decision to drop men’s tennis from the list of varsity sports at EMU was made easier, King said, by the fact that the school was having difficulty filling all the spots on its roster.
“We were finding it extremely difficult to recruit tennis players at the Division III level – partially because of the scholarship issue, and partially because of the level of play,” King said.
“Another factor here is that the Central Virginia area is just not a strong tennis area,” King said. “I know people want to throw rotten apples at me for saying that. But it’s just not a strong tennis area – and that makes our recruiting more difficult, because more kids want to stay close to home to go to college. Now we need to go to the Northern Virginia area and the Tidewater area and so forth – and it becomes a bit more challenging to come to a place like EMU and continue to keep tennis as a part of their college experience.”
Recent EMU graduate Ian Koons – a second-team All-ODAC tennis selection in 2007 – said his teammates understand the reasons cited by King for the decision to drop their sport to club status, “to a point.”
But that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.
“It’s a lot less of a team atmosphere,” Koons told The Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg. “At a varsity level, you’re traveling, always at practices. At the club level, there are not that many matches. It’s not the same magnitude of a varsity sport.”
With gas prices not likely to come too far down anytime soon, more cuts in the athletics offerings at Eastern Mennonite could be in the offing.
“It depends upon how the financial picture of the university and athletic department in particular begins to look down the road,” King said. “There’s no doubt about it – if it keeps on going up, we’ll have to look at some travel restrictions, as will all universities and all programs. We’ll all be going to be trying to play more games at home – which isn’t going to work across the board. But yeah – we’ll have to look at some unique ways to address this.
“There are some things that we’re thinking about doing. I think schools are looking at the possibility of travel squads that might be less – so that maybe you take two vans instead of a bus. There’s certainly the possibility that we’ll be looking at some of these things. I don’t know about restrictions across the board – but certainly travel would be one of the ways to do it,” King said.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.