Athletics are more important to small private colleges like Tabor than to large universities like the University of Kansas and Kansas State.
Before accusing me of comparing ants to elephants, please read on.
It’s not that athletics are unimportant in either case, but they are important in different ways, and more important at Tabor College. For public universities, athletics are an expense. In most major universities, basketball makes a nice contribution to their athletic departments’ bottom line, but football pays the bills.
Winning isn’t everything, but filling stadium and arena seats is. Winning a lot helps fill seats. More than one coach, even a winning coach, has been fired or resigned because of lukewarm fan interest.
KU could continue to exist without athletics. Tabor? No way. Granted, KU wouldn’t be the same university, but it would be possible to remain open.
For example, the University of Chicago, one of the founding members of the Big 10, gave up all Division I intercollegiate athletic competition in 1946, but continues to thrive as an academic institution. In recent years they have resumed competition at the NCAA D-III level.
For Tabor, student enrollment is everything.
At KU and KSU, the aura that surrounds it when it is successful in football or basketball is significant, just as the image created by a losing program is problematic. Turner Gill may be a great person, but empty seats and two losing seasons were more than KU could stomach.
KU basketball coach Bill Self bought himself some job security by winning a national championship not that long ago, but don’t think for a second that he wouldn’t be vulnerable if the men’s basketball team only has a .500 record for a couple of years.
Universities like KU receive millions of dollars through ticket sales, TV contracts and advertising, but that money is used to sustain the athletic program, not help the operating budget. These institutions can benefit from athletic success though in the form of increased giving from alumni and other donors.
By contrast, Tabor receives a mere pittance from tickets and advertising, but that’s not the issue. A college like Tabor wouldn’t exist without a strong athletic program. Nearly 400, or roughly two-thirds of the student body on Tabor’s Hillsboro campus, participate in intercollegiate athletics. Even if that number is skewed high because of students participating in multiple sports, that’s a lot of student-athletes.
At Tabor, football accounts for about 125 students, followed by baseball with 41, men’s soccer 31, men’s basketball 28, softball 22, women’s soccer 21, volleyball 20, women’s basketball 19, men’s track 17, cheer squad 16, women’s track and men’s cross country nine each, men’s tennis and women’s bowling eight apiece, women’s tennis seven, men’s bowling and women’s cross country six each.
The contrast is stark when you compare the number of student athletes to the student body at a university with nearly 30,000 students.
When Wichita State dropped football after the 1986 season, student enrollment increased the next three years. Granted, that was a time when the number of 18-year-olds entering college was rising because of demographics. However, it should be noted that a number of large universities are doing just fine with student enrollment minus football.
What would Tabor’s enrollment be without football? Almost certainly less than it is today, unless you can replace the more than 100 student-athletes who play that sport.
A number of major universities have cut some non-revenue producing sports without any real impact to enrollment. In fact, any enrollment loss because of eliminating most sports would be a drop in the bucket.
To make a long story short, private colleges live and die by the numbers. Colleges in the Midwest must be competitive and creative to generate those student numbers.
Next time, we’ll consider the cost of doing business for small colleges like Tabor and why athletics plays such a critical role.