March 7 was the last time the Columbia men’s basketball team took the floor. That night, now over eight months ago, rival University of Pennsylvania thrashed the Lions in Philadelphia 85-65, wrapping up a devastating 6-24 campaign that saw Columbia finish at the very bottom of the Ancient Eight.
For the Light Blue, that game, and the season as a whole, was one to forget.
“We just didn’t play very well,” head coach Jim Engles said after the loss. “I don’t think we really took anything positive away.”
Since that game, the coronavirus pandemic has put life for many on hold. More recently, the Ivy League decided to cancel all winter athletics. As a result, the men’s basketball team has faded from the minds of many—donors included.
On this year’s Giving Day, a yearly fundraising initiative for the University, men’s basketball raised only $30,487, a decrease of nearly 88 percent from the $250,715 it raised in 2019. In 2017, the team came up with $222,580—less than 2019 but still seven times 2020′s total.
However, men’s basketball was not the only team that saw a substantial dropoff in Giving Day donations this year. Thirteen of Columbia’s sports programs received less money through Giving Day this year than they did last year. Among those, five suffered decreases greater than 50 percent.
Fencing, one of Columbia’s few teams that frequently ranks among the best in the country, was one of those that suffered a huge hit. In 2019, the program received over $200,000 through Giving Day. This year, that number is down to just $82,510.50. Women’s lacrosse also saw a gargantuan dip in donations. The team came up with only $33,155 this year, the fourth-lowest among all teams. This figure is down by over $90,000 from last year’s total.
Reductions in funding have proven to be destructive for college sports since the start of the pandemic. Over the past several months, colleges across the country have had to cut teams due to budget shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic, including big-name Division I schools such as Stanford University, University of Connecticut, and Boise State University.
In June, Brown University dropped 11, and later reinstated three, of its varsity teams. Despite the dip in donations faced by many of its programs, Columbia has yet to terminate any. But is there at least a reason to worry?
Experts believe that the answer is no. Columbia, unlike Division I powerhouses like Stanford and the Ohio State University, is not dependent on television deals and game-related revenue to run and maintain its sports programs, so the cancellation of these games is hardly consequential for Columbia Athletics’ funding. In fact, not having sports could potentially be saving the University money, according to Victor Matheson, a sports economist and professor at the College of the Holy Cross.
“The reduction of expenses probably is at least as much as any revenue [Columbia] might have generated by playing this fall,” Matheson said, whereas at many Power Five institutions, losing a season of football or basketball can “[cause] huge holes in their budget that there’s no real solution to.”
Matheson also explained that year-to-year fluctuations in donations within individual programs are not normally a cause for concern due to the cyclical and top-heavy nature of donations.
“You might have a person who gives a $100,000 gift this year, and that’s their one gift for five or six years,” he said. “So you’re gonna get a lot of fluctuation just because people will make a big gift at some particular time for some reason.”
According to Matheson, programs that saw massive dropoffs in donations this year do not necessarily have reason to panic. Still, pecking order determines which sports would be kept and which will be cut when push comes to shove. Matheson said there’s “no chance” the men’s basketball team would get cut in spite of its disappointing fundraising campaign.
“Basketball is the single one place where a school like Columbia can potentially make it onto national TV,” Matheson explained, referring to the March Madness tournament. “They would drop every other sport out there before they dropped men’s basketball.”
For an institution like Columbia especially, which loses money each year on its football team, athletics are not integral to the University’s budget besides generating an active alumni base. Instead, according to Craig Depken II, a sports economist and economics professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Belk College of Business, money reallocation tends to happen at the institutional level, so other sources of revenue—namely, tuition and student fees—can make up for lost revenue in athletics. This year, despite online instruction, Columbia undergraduate enrollment numbers have remained relatively stable, while tuition has not decreased. However, at other schools, where competing may be a priority for student-athletes, not having sports could very well result in lower enrollment numbers and, by extension, less overall revenue.
“There are very few people who are athletes at Columbia who will say, ‘You know what, I don’t think I’m gonna go to Columbia because I can’t play football this year,’” Matheson said. “But if you are at another school, the lack of athletics may very well mean that [you] don’t go at all.”
There is also typically some level of fund reallocation within the athletic departments. Where some programs come up short, others may outperform. As a result, the total amount of money a department raises is usually more important than the figures raised by individual programs.
“Unless a team is really on the chopping block for some reason and has real reason to believe that they’re going away, … generally, it’s the total amount that’s important because everything else can be reallocated as need be,” Matheson said.
While many programs did not meet fundraising expectations, Columbia Athletics as a whole raised $3,180,677.29, roughly $200,000 up from last year, largely thanks to the 10 programs that saw an increase in donations from last year.
The biggest mover was rowing, with a total of $174,967.54, 73.3 percent more than last year’s total. Baseball and softball, whose seasons were cut short last spring, experienced 42.8 and 27.46 and percent growth, respectively, as well.
Football also won big, topping the leaderboards with $274,060.37. This figure can possibly be attributed to the increased alumni engagement in the football program in recent years. This fall, the program held its annual “rookie draft,” in which Columbia football graduates select first-years on the team to mentor. According to running backs coach Joe D’Orazio, more than half of this year’s mentors graduated during the past five years.
“The amount of people that [head] coach [Al] Bagnoli has had in the past five years that are now mentors … is special,” D’Orazio said.
For athletes and non-athletes alike, the creation and maintenance of a connection to Columbia Athletics lead to a greater likelihood to donate. Traditionally, Homecoming has served as a time to return to campus and reunite with the athletic department through the annual football game. However, in a time without sports, programs like football’s Alumni and First-Year Player Draft—which serves as a mentorship program—keep alumni in the fold as a reminder of their connection to Athletics, encouraging those graduates to give money on Giving Day.
The pandemic has also proven to not be detrimental to the finances of the extremely wealthy. Many donors to Columbia Athletics are its former athletes. Forty-four percent of these former Lions went into higher-paying finance jobs between 2017 and 2019. Besides the often-high paycheck, finance is one of the industries that has not seen major layoffs like those in media, the performing arts, and real estate. For many of the wealthy, the pandemic has actually provided them an opportunity to have extra funds for donating due to the cancelation of many recreational activities.
“Lots of rich people actually are kind of flushed with cash right now because they haven’t been able to spend their money in lots of ways otherwise,” Matheson said. “It’s not like you can buy really expensive Hamilton tickets; it’s not like you can spend money on that first-class cruise around the Caribbean because those are all shut down.”
Though total donation amount may have slightly risen, Matheson emphasized that one lost source of revenue is the NCAA itself, which, according to Matheson, evenly distributes a portion of its revenue to its member institutions. While all of the major football programs decided to partake in the football season this fall, the upcoming bowls are up in the air, the cancellation of which would be devastating for the NCAA. A large percentage of the revenue made from college football stems from postseason play due to the massive streaming deals and the sheer number of in-person spectators. Due to rising case numbers of COVID-19, postseason play might not be able to take place at all, and if it does, it will likely be with limited or no in-person viewership.
However, because of the cancellation of the 2020 March Madness basketball tournament, which typically brings in nearly $1 billion, the NCAA is in a “terrible financial situation.”
“There’s a decent chunk of change that’s not going to be there for most colleges and universities this year,” Matheson said.
Reports of a potential 2021 March Madness bubble indicate that the NCAA is hopeful for next season’s tournament, which will help it recuperate some of those losses. However, how this plan will be implemented is still uncertain.
What is certain, though, is that with Ivy League winter sports off the table, Columbia basketball fans are going to have to sit tight a little longer before they fill Levien Gymnasium once again.