In an effort to preserve the overall integrity and competitiveness of University of Maine athletics during these difficult economic times, athletics director Blake James on Wednesday announced his decision to suspend the women’s volleyball and men’s soccer programs.
The cuts, which become effective June 30, were made to help the athletic department achieve its share ($253,000) of a university-mandated $8.8 million budget reduction for fiscal year 2010.
“It was a situation where we had to look at addressing a budget shortfall that was significant and we looked at all the different options,” James said. “Ultimately, [suspending] these two programs ended up being the best solution to a terrible situation.”
Cutting volleyball and men’s soccer is expected to save the athletic department approximately $600,000 next year and it is projected to result in annual savings of more than $900,000 in subsequent years.
The move leaves UMaine with 17 Division I varsity athletic programs.
James said the cuts should enable UMaine athletics to weather a harsh economy that has resulted in significant revenue losses from invested endowment funds, reduced annual gifts, declines in sales of tickets and UMaine merchandise and other setbacks.
For example, UMaine men’s hockey, a key revenue-producer for the athletic department, suffered a 9.1 percent decrease in attendance last season that resulted in a loss of about $183,000.
“It was something where the last resort was having to cut a program, but obviously we’re in a very dire situation and we had to go to the last resort,” James said.
The news, delivered by James on Wednesday in one-on-one meetings with volleyball head coach Lynn Atherley and men’s soccer coach Pat Laughlin and in group gatherings with each team, caught all involved by surprise.
“It hits home pretty hard,” Laughlin said. “I’m not only the coach, I’m a Maine alum.
“I’m extremely saddened, shocked and disappointed with the University of Maine’s decision to cut or suspend the men’s soccer program.”
James laments having to make such a difficult decision.
“To have to inform student-athletes and their coaches that you’re suspending their program is a difficult position to be in,” he said. “It has an impact on a number of lives.”
Even with the elimination of the two sports, UMaine athletics must account for another $271,000 during 2010. That gap is expected to be met through other means, including playing more “guarantee” games, for which UMaine is paid to play other teams, possible schedule reductions and other measures.
During this fiscal year, volleyball had an operating budget, including salaries and benefits, of $232,564 and scholarship expenditures of $343,238. The Bears had a head coach, one paid assistant, 15 players and 12 scholarships.
Men’s soccer had a much smaller budget of $145,580 for operating costs and $175,000 for scholarships. It included a head coach, one paid assistant, 26 players and 6.5 scholarships.
For 2008-09, a full athletic scholarship is worth approximately $18,000 for Maine residents and $31,000 for out-of-state students.
“Like every institution, business and family, UMaine is faced with very significant financial challenges that require substantial responses,” UMaine President Robert Kennedy said in a press release. “We regret the impact of this move on those individuals, especially our students, who are affected by this decision.”
As a concession to the affected student-athletes, UMaine will honor the scholarships of those who competed for the Black Bears in both sports during 2008-09 and who intend to continue working on their degrees.
Prospective student-athletes who signed a National Letter of Intent to attend UMaine next fall and play one of those sports are being offered one year of scholarship funding if they choose to attend UMaine.
“I felt the right thing to do as a program and the university felt the right thing to do was to continue with our financial commitment to them as students,” James said.
However, the athletic department could recoup a lot more of the scholarship money — possibly as much as $200,000, and thus reduce its financial burden — depending upon how many of the student-athletes decide to transfer to another school, thus forfeiting their athletic aid.
Women’s volleyball has been a UMaine varsity program since being reinstated in 1999 after a 15-year hiatus. Its first run covered 1972-83.
Atherley’s Black Bears compiled a 14-13 overall record and a 7-5 America East mark last fall, reaching the conference semifinals. UMaine had a 35-68 record during the last four years coming off an appearance in the league finals in 2004.
Atherley could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.
UMaine men’s soccer has struggled mightily during the last four seasons, although Laughlin’s team showed modest gains while going 5-10-2 (3-13-1 AE) last fall after the program posted a dismal 5-41-3 record from 2005-07.
James said while the two programs are classified as “suspended,” both programs are gone for good.
“When you look at sustainability for our athletic program within the university environment, I don’t see us having those programs as part of our program again in the future,” he said.
James said numerous factors went into the decision, but that suspending those two programs would best allow UMaine to reach its financial goals. Forcing each UMaine team to take financial hits to retain men’s soccer and volleyball was not a viable option.
“An across-the-board cut wasn’t a consideration,” James said. “We don’t want to further deteriorate the programs that we have.”
UMaine athletics has already taken numerous small steps to help meet the budget shortfall. James said media guides for the spring sports weren’t printed to save money, while some positions vacated within the department also have not yet been filled.
“We really were evaluating all the possible options from the start, recognizing that we had a very large gap to cover,” James said. “It’s a cumulative thing.”
James said UMaine football, which has the largest budget of all the athletic programs ($1.134 million, not including scholarships totaling an estimated $1 million), was not considered for elimination.
America East also has been proactive as athletic directors voted earlier this year to alter the conference weekend baseball format from Friday-Saturday-Sunday to Saturday-Sunday to reduce travel expenses for the teams involved.
James said there are no plans for any further staff reductions within the athletic department.
He is confident UMaine athletics will be able to move forward in the coming years and confident it has the financial resources to remain competitive.
“Based on the changes we’ve made and other things that we can do internally, our program is situated now to compete in this current economic environment,” James said. “As the economy gets better, our program is positioned to grow and get stronger in the future.”
UMaine is not alone in taking drastic steps to meet budget constraints. America East member Vermont announced last month it was eliminating baseball and softball after this season, while Division I Quinnipiac University, located in Hamden, Conn., recently cut volleyball, men’s golf and men’s track and field.
Among other New England land-grant universities, Massachusetts this month axed men’s and women’s skiing, while Rhode Island a year ago eliminated its men’s swimming, men’s tennis, field hockey and gymnastics programs.