There was much excitement in Huntington a few months ago when Marshall University announced it was ready to build a long-awaited baseball stadium.
Site preparation has begun, but other than that, the project has stalled.
While that project is stalled, it’s a good time to consider the future of spring sports in college athletics. And, too, the status of minor league baseball in West Virginia. The two are related in a way.
Colleges and universities are facing a financial crunch. Costs go up while pressure builds to hold down tuition and fee increases. Few sports programs break even financially. Those usually are at the larger universities with huge fan followings and lucrative television contracts. West Virginia University is one of those schools thanks to its membership in the Big XII. Marshall is in a lower-tier conference. Athletic departments at those schools must be subsidized from student fees and other sources.
Which brings us to baseball and non-revenue sports — the ones that don’t benefit from ticket sales or selling broadcast rights. Financial pressures from the coronavirus pandemic and other sources are forcing schools to consider these programs’ futures.
Some schools have made cuts. According to Sports Illustrated, Furman has cut baseball, Old Dominion has cut wrestling and Cincinnati has cut men’s soccer. Brown cut 11 spring sports.
Last month, Bowling Green State University in Ohio dropped baseball. According to the Toledo Blade, half the athletics budget at Bowling Green comes from student fees. The department was told to cut $2 million in cuts as part of the university’s plan to prevent an overall $29 million deficit for the 2020-21 academic year. The baseball program was saved this week when alumni secured commitments to raise $1.5 million over the next three years.
Here’s where professional baseball enters the picture at Marshall. Some fans’ dreams for the Marshall baseball stadium was securing a minor league team to play there after Marshall’s season ended. That plan could have faced opposition from the West Virginia Power in Charleston, but the Power’s own future is in question as Minor League Baseball is reducing the number of teams it has. Major League Baseball no longer wants to support so many minor league teams, and most of West Virginia’s minor league teams could be contracted out of existence.
Not having the possibility of a minor league team could spell trouble for the financial justification for the Marshall baseball field. Marshall supporters have waited decades for a ballpark near campus. It would be a severe disappointment if one is not built, but economic realities could work against it.
Meanwhile, universities must be ready to talk about the true cost of athletics. When state-supported schools ask legislators to maintain or increase their subsidies, they need to be up front about how and why they subsidize money-losing sports. Students graduate with loan debt, part of which goes to support sports they do not attend and, honestly, don’t care about. Are non-revenue sports sustainable? COVID-19 and economic realities will soon force schools to answer that question.