Authors:  Mark Mitchell and Rob Montgomery

Corresponding Author:
Mark Mitchell, DBA
Professor of Marketing
Associate Dean, Wall College of Business
NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR)
Coastal Carolina University
P. O. Box 261954
Conway, SC  29528
(843) 349-2392

Mark Mitchell, DBA is Professor of Marketing at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.
Rob Montgomery, DBA is Professor of Marketing at the University of Evansville (IN).

A Review of Student-Athlete Responses to Team Sport Eliminations by NCAA Division I Schools


The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted the budgets of college athletic departments at all levels.  In response, some institutions have elected to eliminate specific team sports.  This study examines how student-athletes respond when their schools announce the intent to eliminate their sports.  The NCAA transfer portal can be used to identify the responses of affected student-athletes.  For the team eliminations made in Spring/Summer 2020, the affected student-athletes tended to enter the NCAA transfer portal to attempt to find a new school to meet their athletic and academic goals. The actions were taken even though most schools announce the intent to honor the scholarships of affected student-athletes even with the elimination of their sports.  Over 40% of NCAA Division I and II student-athletes receive partial or no athletic aid. These students are paying tuition and fees while competing in their sports.  As schools study the possible elimination of team sports, they must be mindful to consider the total cost of eliminating a sport and not simply the reduction in the athletic budget.  The presence of partial scholarships may make it advantageous to continue such sports to retain those student-athletes and the tuition and fees they pay.

Key words:  elimination of team sports, student-athlete school selection


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a far-reaching impact across all aspects of daily life, including public health, education, the economy, and the broader culture.  Historically, competitive spectator sports have provided consumers with a bit of ‘release’ as they cheer for their favorite teams or watch their favorite events like March Madness Men’s Basketball, The Masters, The Kentucky Derby, the College World Series, and others.  In mid-March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed this reality.  The NCAA cancelled the Men’s and Women’s Basketball tournaments in addition to cancelling other championships that were in-process.  The NCAA suspended all in-process Spring sports. Many student-athletes didn’t realize their careers were coming to an abrupt and unplanned end (17).

The Men’s Basketball tournament accounts for almost $1 Billion per year (about 80% of the NCAA’s total revenue) (2).  The NCAA’s planned total distribution to its member of $600 million was reduced to $225 million.  The cancellation of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament cost NCAA member schools over $375 million (13).  In late March 2020, the NCAA extended eligibility for student-athletes affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Senior student-athletes in Spring sports could be granted an extra year of competition.  Financial aid limitations were changed to allow these ‘extra year’ players to receive financial aid along with newly-admitted student-athletes.  It must be noted this extension is an increase in costs for schools and, for some, a costly luxury they cannot afford.  As such, the NCAA allowed member institutions to provide the additional year of competition without requiring they offer the same amount of athletic aid in 2020-2021 that was offered in 2019-2020 (10).

As all institutions of higher education look to reduce their budgets in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are looking at various academic and athletic programs for possible elimination.   In Spring 2020, schools such as Furman University, University of Cincinnati, Old Dominion University, East Carolina University, and others voted to eliminate select team sports immediately.  East Carolina University reported the elimination of Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving and Men’s and Women’s Tennis would affect 68 student-athletes and 9 coaches.  The move would provide the university an estimated $4.9 million in long-term savings.  ECU would remain in compliance with NCAA standards for the minimum number of sports offered.   Further, ECU would honor the athletic scholarships of existing and in-coming student-athletes in these sports (6). 

The purpose of this manuscript is to evaluate the announced Spring 2020 eliminations of team sports and the resultant transfer decisions made by the affected student-athletes.  First, the transition from high school to college sports is explored to illustrate the competitiveness of competing at the Division I level.  Second, a review of NCAA scholarship sports and scholarship types is provided to illustrate the competitiveness of securing a ‘roster spot’ and possibly athletic aid for a student-athlete.  Third, the school selection decision is overviewed analyzed with the presence of college sports as an important factor in school choice.  Fourth, the responses by student-athletes whose teams have been eliminated are analyzed and patterns noted.  Finally, conclusions and applications in sport are provided to aid decision-makers seeking to manage budgets in a challenging operational period for college athletics.


The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the major organizing body of college sports.  High school student-athletes who aspire to compete at the NCAA level have a variety of options but also face many limitations.  For example, the NCAA limits the amount of scholarships per sport for each institution.  Some sports allow full athletic aid scholarships while other sports require coaches to divide scholarships over their teams (3, 18, 20, 22).  Though the figure varies by sport, only about 5% of high school student-athletes go on to compete in college sports (15).   Table 1 provides a look at the percentage of high school student-athletes who compete in their sports on the college level broken down by NCAA Division I, II, and III.  The reader should note that more student-athletes compete at DII and DIII schools (about 65% combined) compared to DI (about 34% of student-athletes) (16).  However, DI programs tend to have larger roster sizes, (i.e., more scholarship slots), enhanced facilities, enhanced infrastructure for student support, much larger media and fan attention, and other attributes attractive to prospective student-athletes.


MenHigh School ParticipantsCollege ParticipantsOverall HS % to College% HS to NCAA DIv. I% HS to NCAA DIv. II% HS to NCAA DIv. III
Cross Country270,09514,2705.3%1.8%1.4%2.1%
Ice Hockey35,0604,22912.1%4.8%0.6%6.6%
Track & Field600,09728,6984.8%1.9%1.2%1.7%
Water Polo22,5011,0474.7%2.7%0.8%1.2%
WomenHigh School ParticipantsCollege ParticipantsOverall HS % to College% HS to NCAA DIv. I% HS to NCAA DIv. II% HS to NCAA DIv. III
Cross Country223,51815,6327.0%2.7%1.7%2.6%
Field Hockey59,8566,10310.2%3.0%1.4%5.8%
Ice Hockey9,6092,40025.0%8.9%1.2%14.9%
Track & Field488,59230,0186.1%2.7%1.5%1.9%
Water Polo21,9541,2165.8%3.6%1.0%1.1%

Source: (19).

NCAA Scholarship Limits Per Sport

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) limits the number of scholarships per sport for each institution (20).   Approximately 60% of NCAA Division I and Division II student-athletes receive some sort of athletic aid, which means 40% receive no athletic aid (but are eligible for other forms of aid such as academic aid) (16).

NCAA Division I and II sports can be divided into two groups: (1) head count sports, and (2) equivalency sports.  In head count sports, teams are restricted in the number of scholarships they can award for that sport.  And, scholarships cannot be divided among student-athletes (3).  NCAA head count scholarship sports include Football (DI FBS only), Men’s Basketball (DI), Women’s Basketball (DI), Women’s Tennis (D1), Women’s Gymnastics (D1), and Women’s Volleyball (DI).   These sports are considered the ‘full-ride sports’, meaning athletic scholarship recipients cannot receive (or stack) other forms of aid (such as academic merit awards) (20).

The remainder of sports are equivalency sports at the NCAA Division I level.  All Division II sports are considered equivalency sports.  In equivalency sports, the total number of scholarships is limited by the NCAA, but teams are allowed can offer fractional (or partial) scholarships to student-athletes up to a certain number of based on NCAA limits (3).  For example, the NCAA allows 11.7 scholarships to be distributed over no more than 27 student-athletes for Division I baseball (18, p. 188).  For student-athletes receiving partial athletic aid for an equivalency sport, other forms of academic and need-based aid can be added (or stacked) with the athletic award.  Note, the minimum percentage of a scholarship that must be offered (such as 25% or 33%) can vary by sport.  It must be noted that NCAA Division III schools cannot offer purely athletic scholarships.  The number of scholarships able to be offered by sport is profiled in Table 2


SportNCAA Division INCAA Division II
Basketball (D1 Head Count)1310
Cross Country / Track12.612.6
Football (FBS) (D1 Head Count)85 
Football (FCS)63 
Football 36
Ice Hockey1813.5
Swimming & Diving9.98.1
Water Polo4.54.5
Basketball (D1 Head Count)1510
Beach Volleyball65
Cross Country / Track1812.6
Gymnastics (D1 Head Count)126
Ice Hockey1818
Swimming & Diving148.1
Tennis (D1 Head Count)86
Track & Field1812.6
Volleyball (D1 Head Count)128
Water Polo88

Sources: (18, 22).

School Selection Decisions by Student-Athletes

A seminal model in the field of Consumer Behavior is the Engel, Kollat, and Blackwell (7) (EKB) Model of Consumer Decision-Making.  Building on the work of John Dewey (5), the EKB Model proposes that consumer work through sequential steps when making consumer decisions (8):

  • Problem Recognition
  • Information Search
  • Evaluation of Alternatives
  • Purchase (or Choice)
  • Post-Purchase (or Post-Choice) Evaluation

Mitchell and Montgomery (14) applied the EKB Model to the school selection process of prospective student-athletes seeking to transition from high school to college sports.   The selection of a college can be considered a high involvement decision for most students as they engage in extended problem-solving.   Here, consumers spent more time making decisions, collecting more information, and evaluate it more critically.   Key athletic and financial inputs to the school choice would include:

  • A roster position or opportunity to compete for one
  • The award of athletic aid and its dollar amount
  • Fit with team culture
  • Fit with coaching philosophy
  • Geographic location of school
  • Academic programs of interest
  • Academic support services (tutoring, career planning, etc.)
  • Other

Buyer’s remorse (or cognitive dissonance) is more likely for high-involvement decisions (9, p. 142).  The new NCAA transfer portal allows a student-athlete to ‘undo’ their college choice and transfer.  It is interesting to note that student-athlete transfer rates have remained somewhat stable in recent years (15% for men, 10% for women at the DI level) (21).

The Impact of Team Eliminations on Student-Athletes

The elimination of a team sport may cause a student-athlete to consider leaving that institution.  Depending on the timing of the announcement, it may be difficult for that student-athlete to find an acceptable transfer school (and funding) to continue to strive to reach their academic and athletic goals.  Consider the elimination of a team sport in May.  The next school year starts in August.  Other institutions have assembled their recruiting classes.  They have already allocated their student aid (and merit-based academic aid).   These ‘newly-available’ student-athletes may find themselves ‘frozen out’ of opportunities to attend school and receive athletic aid.  And, while schools typically commit to honoring the scholarship amounts, the loss of the opportunity to compete in one’s sport may be more compelling than the scholarship money.  Further, about 40% of Division I and Division II student-athletes receive NO athletic aid (16).   They are paying tuition and fees to attend school and continue to compete.  For these students, that opportunity is now gone.  This analysis examines how they respond to this new reality.


In response to the budgetary impact of COVID-19, several institutions announced the elimination of select team sports in Spring 2020.  Below is a list of each school and the sports eliminated.

  • University of Akron (OH): Men’s Cross Country; Men’s Golf; and Women’s Tennis.
  • Bowling Green State University (OH):  Baseball.
  • Central Michigan University:  Men’s Indoor Track; Men’s Outdoor Track.
  • University of Cincinnati (OH): Men’s Soccer.
  • East Carolina University: Men’s Swimming & Diving; Women’s Swimming & Diving; Men’s Tennis; and Women’s Tennis.
  • Florida International University:  Men’s Track.
  • Furman University (SC): Baseball; Men’s Lacrosse.
  • Old Dominion University (VA): Men’s Wrestling.
  • Wisconsin – Green Bay:  Men’s Tennis; Women’s Tennis.
  • Appalachian State: Men’s Soccer; Men’s Tennis; Men’s Indoor Track
  • Chicago State University:  Baseball.

Brown University announced the elimination of 11 NCAA sports and a transitioning of those sports to club sport status (12).  It must be noted that Ivy League schools do not award athletic aid.  However, their student-athletes can qualify for much need-based aid (11).  For this reason, these sport eliminations are not included in this analysis.

With the introduction of the NCAA transfer portal, it is possible to document the declared intent to transfer for the student-athletes facing the elimination of their team sports by their schools. The 2019-20 team rosters were collected from each school’s athletic department website.  One member of this author team serves as the NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR) for a Division I institution, which provides access to the NCAA Transfer Portal (1).  Given this access, it was possible to match the number of student-athletes who entered the transfer portal to each team’s roster from the 2019-2020 season.  In securing NCAA approval to publish this data, the authors ensured that no individual student is named or identified in this analysis; rather, the focus is on the team and the percentage of the team that elects to possibly transfer.


Team eliminations announced before the end of May 2020 were included in this analysis.   Cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track can be more difficult to evaluate as some student-athletes (particularly distance runners) can run Cross Country in the Fall, run Indoor Track in Winter, and run Outdoor Track in Spring.  As such, these sports are removed from this analysis.  The information is provided in Table 3.    


Institution and SportNCAA Sport Type & Number of Scholarships2020 Roster SizeNumber of Seniors or Graduate StudentsAvailable for Possible TransferNumber in NCAA Transfer PortalPercentage of Student-Athletes Electing to Transfer
East Carolina TennisHead Count 81028787.5%
East Carolina SwimmingEquivalency 14255201680%
Akron TennisHead Count 89189100%
WI-Green Bay TennisHead Count 87167100%
East Carolina SwimmingEquivalency 9.9244201155%
East Carolina TennisEquivalency 4.58178100%
Cincinnati SoccerEquivalency 9.92442021100%
Old Dominion WrestlingEquivalency 9.9327252288%
Bowling Green BaseballEquivalency 11.7342322784.4%
Furman BaseballEquivalency 11.7357282692.8%
Furman LacrosseEquivalency 12.6568483572.9%
Akron GolfEquivalency 4.5817685.7%
WI-Green Bay TennisEquivalency 4.5725240%
App State SoccerEquivalency 9.9262241979.2%
App State TennisEquivalency 4.51037571.4%
AL Huntsville HockeyEquivalency 18274231773.9%
Chicago State BaseballEquivalency 11.730121823 6 seniors100%

Source:  Original.  Data collected in May/June 2020.

To aid the reader, two entries are expanded upon below (one for a Head Count sport and one for an Equivalency Sport).  Consider the elimination of Women’s Tennis by East Carolina University and Wrestling by Old Dominion University.

Institution and SportNCAA Sport Type & Number of Scholarships2020 Roster SizeNumber of Seniors or Graduate StudentsAvailable for Possible TransferNumber in NCAA Transfer PortalPercentage of Student-Athletes Electing to Transfer
East Carolina TennisHead Count 81028787.5%
  • Women’s Tennis is a Head Count sport.  Scholarship recipients must receive a FULL scholarship.  Scholarships cannot be divided.
  • The roster size (taken from the ECU website) shows 10 team members.  8 scholarship athletes and 2 non-scholarship athletes.
  • There were 2 seniors and/or graduate students, most of these should be in their final year of NCAA competition.
  • (Roster – Seniors/GRAD) = Number of student-athletes who can no longer play women’s tennis for East Carolina University.  That number is 8.
  • 7 of these 8 student-athletes entered their names in the NCAA portal, or 87.5% of the Women’s Tennis Team intends to transfer. 
  • While ECU is committed to honoring the athletic aid scholarship offers, the student-athletes are largely choosing to transfer to continue to play collegiate tennis.
Institution and SportNCAA Sport Type & Number of Scholarships2020 Roster SizeNumber of Seniors or Graduate StudentsAvailable for Possible TransferNumber in NCAA Transfer PortalPercentage of Student-Athletes Electing to Transfer
Old Dominion WrestlingEquivalency 9.9327252288%
  • Wrestling is an Equivalency Sport.  ODU has 9.9 scholarships to spread among all wrestling team members.  Practically speaking, most wrestlers are receiving partial- or no-athletic aid. 
  • The roster size (taken from the ECU website) shows 32 team members.   32 people share 9.9 scholarships.  If you assume all team members are receiving equal scholarship amounts of 30% of a scholarship, these student-athletes are paying 70% of the cost of their educations.
    • It must be further noted that most public institutions have in-state and out-of-state tuition rates.  It is reasonable to assume some of these affected students were paying out-of-state tuition (which tends to be higher than in-state rates).
  • There were 7 seniors or graduate students, most of these should be in their final year of NCAA competition.
  • (Roster – Seniors/GRAD) = Number of student-athletes who can no longer wrestle for Old Dominion University.  That number is 25.
  • 22 of these 25 student-athletes entered their names in the NCAA portal, or 88% of the Wrestling Team intends to transfer.
  • While ODU is committed to honoring the athletic aid scholarship offers, the student-athletes are largely choosing to transfer to continue to wrestle at the college level.

            As illustrated in Table 3, student-athletes eligible to transfer when their school elects to eliminate their sport tend to do so by a large margin.  On average, over 80% of a team indicted their intent to transfer by entering the NCAA transfer portal within days or weeks of the announcement of the elimination of their sport. 

Noteworthy Updates

In late May of 2020, the men’s ice hockey at Alabama – Huntsville was reinstated for the 2020-21 season after supporters raised over $870,000 to help sustain the program (23).  Similarly, in late June of 2020, Bowling Green announced they were reinstating the baseball program after raising $1.5 million to cover its costs for the next three years.  BGSU alumni and donors made this commitment is just a few days of beginning this fund-raising effort (4).   This data is still included in this analysis as it demonstrates the responses of student-athletes when their schools announce the cancellation of their sport.


            Every school, team, and team elimination decision is different.  Still there are four underlying patterns identified in the data.

  1. Equivalency sports are eliminated more frequently than head count sports.  This is noteworthy as most student-athletes in these sports are paying tuition and fees. By contrast, participants in head count sports pay very little in tuition and fees.
  • There are dramatically more men’s sports eliminated than women’s sports.  This may be a function of underlying Title IX compliance in addition to providing desired cost reductions.
  • Student-athletes in the affected team sports are entering the NCAA transfer portal.  They are considering leaving to pursue athletic competition and their education elsewhere.  This is occurring even with the promise of their schools honoring their scholarship amounts (but not offering athletic competition).
  • While the larger spectator sports (i.e., football and basketball) are not being eliminated, a variety of other sports (Baseball, Tennis, Golf, Soccer, Swimming, Track & Field, Cross Country, Lacrosse, Ice Hockey, and Wrestling) are being terminated.   The sports targeted seem more a factor of local operating conditions and not the programmatic demise of any one sport.

It is possible that some eliminated sports could be re-introduced later.  For example, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) eliminated football after the 2014 season.  The sport went on hiatus for two seasons before returning in 2017.  The community rallied around the re-introduction of football and provided financial support at levels never previously seen by the school and football program (24).  Or, the COVID-19 pandemic will cause a long-term reduction in the opportunities to compete in college sports.  This will be determined in the coming years.


Over 40% of NCAA Division I and II student-athletes receive partial or no athletic aid. These students are paying tuition and fees while competing in their sports.  The decision to eliminate a team sport tends to be trigger a decision by the affected student-athletes to leave those schools, even if their athletic aid is promised to be honored by their schools.  In this analysis, over 80% of affected student-athletes took the first step toward transferring by entering the NCAA transfer portal.   The reduction in the athletic budget by eliminating a team sport is only part of the story.  The affected students are taking their purchasing power (tuition and fees) with them and transferring to other schools to continue to compete in their sports.  As such, there is a concurrent reduction in tuition and fees that must also be factored into the decision to eliminate a team sport to accurately determine the total financial impact on the institution.


Athletic Directors, College and University Boards of Trustees, and others have been forced to find ways to cut the costs of delivering athletic programs immediately.   The presence of broad-based athletic programs helps schools compete for student enrollment among student-athletes and non-student athletes.  One can imagine a football fan choosing to attend a school that sponsors football over one that does not.  The offer of a partial scholarship to a swimmer, lacrosse player, or cross-country runner may be the difference in their choosing one school over another.  Student-athletes in equivalency sports pay a combined large amount of money in tuition and fees to their schools.   A 20% scholarship may yield a college or university the remaining 80% of the cost of that student’s education.  This may be viewed as a strong rate of return for those resources invested.

Athletic programs are not inexpensive to operate.  Travel costs, coach’s salaries, equipment costs, administrative support, strength and conditions costs all add up.   The elimination of these costs (in one budget) may lead to a decline in student enrollment (in another budget).  It is important to look at the total cost (and total savings) to the institution when considering the possible elimination of a team sport.  As schools study the possible elimination of team sports, they must be mindful to consider the total cost of eliminating a sport and not simply the reduction in the athletic budget.  The presence of partial scholarships may make it advantageous to continue such sports to retain those student-athletes and the tuition and fees they pay.


  1. Author Notes (2020).  This author team includes an NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR), a role that provides access to the NCAA transfer portal.
  • Dewey, J. (1910/1978).  How we think.  Middle Works, vol 6, 177-356.
  • Engel, J.F., D.T. Kollat, & R.D. Blackwell, (1968). Consumer Behaviour. New York: Rinehart & Winston.
  • Engel, J.F., Blackwell, R.D., & Miniard, P.W. (1995). Consumer Behaviour, 8th edition. Fort Worth, TX: The Dryden Press Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
  • Grewal, D. and Levy, M. (2021).  M Marketing (7th Edition). McGraw-Hill.
  1. Hosick, M. B. (2020). Division I council extends eligibility for student-athletes impacted by COVID-19.   NCAA Media Center (May 30, 2020).  Retrieved from:
  1. Ivy League (2020).  General – prospective athletic information.  Retrieved from:
  1. Koch, B. (2020).  Brown University to cut 11 varsity sports.  Providence Journal (May 28, 2020).  Retrieved from:
  1. Lin, C. (2020).  March Madness 2020 was supposed to be happening right now. Instead, schools are out $375 million.  Fast Company.  Retrieved from:
  1. Mitchell, M. and Montgomery, R. (2019). How do prospective student-athletes choose their schools?  Proceedings of Southeast Informs.
  1. NCAA (2019). Estimated probability of competing in college athletics: research conducted by the NCAA.   Retrieved from:
  1. NCAA (2020). Our three divisions.  Retrieved from:
  1. NCAA Press Release (2020). “NCAA cancels remaining winter and spring championships.”  NCAA Media Center (March 12, 2020).  Retrieved from:
  1. NCAA Division I Manual (2018).  2018-19 NCAA Division I Operating Manual.
  1. NCAA Recruiting Facts (2019). College sports create a pathway to opportunity for student-athletes.  Accessed from:
Print Friendly, PDF & Email