The NCAA requires schools operating an FBS program to field at least 16 total varsity sports. For universities with a Division I men's basketball program but not FBS football, the number is 14. Those minimums protect the NCAA from having to spread revenue, like its $10.8 billion TV contract for the men's basketball tournament, too thinly. The minimums have also become the single biggest contributor to the economic dysfunction in college sports.
Think of an athletic department as a company with two profitable products (football and men's basketball) and a dozen or more products that lose money, often millions, every year. A CEO would look at the balance sheet and eliminate some, if not all, of the unprofitable products. The athletic director, however, cannot. Restrained by those NCAA-mandated minimums and by Title IX, most schools go into each year knowing that they could lose millions, hoping that football and/or basketball pulls them out of the red.
The second stage of SI's model would eliminate the NCAA's minimums; there are more sensible methods to restrict membership. Once freed of those mandates, athletic departments could demote any men's sport that was unable to break even to club status.
This is the most controversial part of SI's model and for good reason: It could mean the death of every men's sport other than football and basketball. But a precedent exists for what happens when a school ties a program's viability to the bottom line. Last year Cal announced it was folding its baseball team as part of budget cuts unless $10 million could be raised. It took some persistent shaking of the tin can, but the program lives on, no longer a financial drag on the school. Cal's rugby program, considered a varsity sport even though the NCAA does not sponsor a rugby championship, has paid much of its own way for years, primarily through endowments set up by alumni.
If SI's model were implemented, a form of natural selection would occur. In the East, alumni, coaches and athletes would surely find a way to save lacrosse. In the North, men's hockey would be preserved. In the South, baseball might live on, just as sports specific to the West Coast, like water polo, would continue. The surviving sports would have a cap on total participants, and they would be run more efficiently, with regionalized travel, smaller recruiting budgets and fewer scholarships at their disposal.
Applying this model to Oregon, SI assumed that the school would find a way to save its men's track and cross-country programs. In 2009--10, those teams ran a deficit of $1,620,083. Some belt-tightening would make a dent in that number, but it would take substantially more to save them. Oregon is one of the wealthiest athletic departments in the country; it received an astonishing $73,808,575 in contributions in '09--10. Of that money all but $1,200 was recorded as unassigned, meaning the majority was not earmarked for a specific sport. Saving programs like Oregon track might not require finding new money; it would just take persuading enough donors to give directly to that team's endowment or fund-raising arm.
Under SI's model Mississippi would cut three men's teams, Oregon would cut two, San Jose State four and Louisville, which has 23 sports, seven. That trimming would result in the following savings: