Sam Robinson was primed to be a star for Cincinnati.
The Oxford, Ohio, native played in all but one game during his freshman-year campaign with the Bearcats’ men’s soccer team in 2019.
The 6-foot-1 170-pound striker recorded a goal and 13 shots on target in his 699 minutes of play during the season and had more appearances than any other true freshman on the team. He had all the confidence in the world heading into his sophomore year, and he was ready to take on more responsibility for the team.
“My freshman year turned out better for me than I expected,” Robinson told Insider. “I played more than I had thought I would. Coming after that into the offseason, I was really ready to build on that, and going into my sophomore year, I thought that I would be ready to take on a much larger role and play a much bigger piece.”
“But obviously not anymore,” he added.
Like other college students across the country, Robinson found his spring cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic. The University of Cincinnati canceled in-person classes in mid-March. There would be no spring friendlies, no weight training, no team meetings, and no in-person bonding for the foreseeable future — or so they thought.
A week or two after the school sent students home from campus, Robinson and his teammates were told to log in to a Zoom call on a Friday morning. Robinson said he and his teammates “really all assumed that it was going to be news regarding a new coaching staff” — a reasonable assumption given that longtime men’s soccer head coach Hylton Dayes had resigned his post in early March.
Instead, newly minted Athletic Director John Cunningham — along with the school’s compliance department, the team’s coaching staff, and others — broke the news that the University of Cincinnati would discontinue its men’s soccer program, effective immediately.
The University of Cincinnati is far from the only school to cut a nonrevenue sport in recent months
The coronavirus pandemic brought the entire sports world to a screeching halt, and college sports programs were among the hardest hit. Typically, football and men’s basketball — the revenue sports at the vast majority of Division I schools — generate enough income through television contracts and ticket sales to fund sports that do not bring in enough money to cover their expenses. But forced shutdowns over the COVID-19 outbreak have caused that system to break down at many institutions.
As of this article’s writing, 19 Division I schools have cut at least one of its teams since the pandemic began. In total, those 19 schools — only one of which belongs to the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, or Southeastern Conference that comprise college sports’ Power Five — have permanently cut 57 teams between them. Baseball, softball, wrestling, men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s tennis, and men’s and women’s golf are among those cut.
Predictably, not one school has chosen to discontinue its football or men’s basketball team as a money-saving measure.
Without NCAA March Madness — one of college athletics’ biggest moneymakers of the year — to line their pockets, athletics programs across the country suddenly faced significant budget cuts. The added uncertainty of an economic downturn and the prospect of decreased donations and limited enrollment make the future of college sports look even bleaker. Add the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming college football season into the mix, and many programs are bracing for a full-blown disaster.
Furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts have all come into play, but for some athletics departments, those weren’t enough. Individual teams started to find themselves on the chopping block, and unsurprisingly, schools first looked to their nonrevenue sports programs — like Cincinnati’s men’s soccer team.
“I mean, I always knew that soccer wasn’t an income sport,” Robinson said. “We didn’t make any money for the school. But that was kind of just the way it is in the men’s soccer in general, so that didn’t really concern me.”
The days following Cincinnati’s decision to cut its men’s soccer team ‘were like torture, honestly’
Robinson found himself at a loss for words immediately after Cunningham told him and his teammates that they’d no longer compete on behalf of the school.
“Dead silence, for sure,” he said. “I saw the reactions from some of my teammates, and they were exactly mine. Everybody went from dead shock to — once it started to sink in after they were talking for a while — not anger but frustration. We didn’t want to be on the phone call anymore.”
Cincinnati committed to honoring current players’ scholarships through the duration of their time in school and agreed to allow players to transfer to another program without penalties or delays.
“Our men’s soccer student-athletes have been outstanding representatives of the University in the classroom and on the field,” Cunningham said in the school’s press release. “They may not fully understand this decision, but I want them to know they were truly and conscientiously considered during my deliberations about the future of UC Athletics. We are making this decision now to enable our men’s soccer student-athletes to have an opportunity to play at another institution if they choose to do so.”
Robinson said he knew he would be transferring schools as soon as he processed the fact that staying at Cincinnati meant ending his soccer career just one year into his college journey.
“Without a doubt, I was going to leave once I heard the news,” Robinson said. “I’m just not done with my soccer career, and that’s not at all how I would want it to end for me. Other people are in different circumstances, but me going into my sophomore year, I have a lot of soccer left to play.”
But the process of finding a new team was far from straightforward, according to Robinson. Though Cunningham said the timing of the decision was made with the student athletes in mind, Robinson said “it was absolutely the worst possible timing for them to cut the program.”
“At the start, it felt very, very rushed,” Robinson added. “With this being uncharted territory for all of us, especially with COVID going on and it being so extremely late in the recruiting year, I had assumed that I would probably have just one or two weeks to make my decision. … With it being so late, there were very few schools that if they had roster spots, they didn’t have any money.”
Just over a month after his team folded, Robinson committed to play for nearby Northern Kentucky University alongside two of his Cincinnati teammates.
Some in the college-sports world are skeptical that such drastic measures as cutting teams was a necessary step
The COVID-19 pandemic unquestionably poses a financial challenge for athletics programs. But according to David Berri, a Southern Utah University professor and sports-economics expert, the coronavirus crisis likely wouldn’t be a large enough force to eradicate a program that would not have been eliminated otherwise.
“If the program was viable before this took place, then it will be viable after this takes place,” Berri told The Washington Post in April. “I just don’t buy the argument that in response to a temporary crisis, you need to cut an entire program.”
Robinson agreed. From his perspective — and likely that of his teammates and other athletes who have lost their programs in recent months — surely there were other cost-saving options aside from eliminating programs, he said.
“They had so many other options than just cutting the program immediately,” he said. “They could have phased out the program and said, ‘All right, we’ll let you guys play for the next three years,’ or at least give us a year to figure out arrangements.”
According to Robinson, former Cincinnati men’s soccer players from throughout the program’s 47-year history banded together in an attempt to keep the team afloat. It wasn’t enough.
“Our alumni were fully on board with supporting the program 100%,” Robinson said. “They even put a proposal together for the athletic department. I think they shut it down. To me, that’s such a red flag. Obviously that makes it look like funding wasn’t the issue.”
“In all reality, it’s not like they’re going to be saving money,” he added. “They’re going to spend that million dollars a year somewhere else. They’re going to be putting it to the football team, to the football locker room, stuff like that.”
Though it’s impossible to confirm if and how the university’s athletics program is reallocating the money it would have devoted to the men’s soccer team, Cincinnati is continuing to invest heavily in its football program. In an interview with Keith Jenkins of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Cunningham confirmed that his office was moving forward with a construction project on the football team’s locker room.
Though the football team’s locker room may have been due for a renovation, major NCAA football programs famously spend exorbitant amounts of money adding all the bells and whistles to their locker rooms to entice top recruits to commit to play there.
If Cincinnati intends to build one of America’s leading college-football programs and position itself to join a Power Five conference, the program will need to compete against teams like LSU, Clemson, and Texas for top recruits. Shaving off $726,498 — the most recently available operating loss of Cincinnati’s men’s soccer team, according to ESPN’s Mark Schlabach — from the overall $68.8-million athletics budget could have taken away from those efforts.
“If you were interested in cutting things, there are things in football and men’s basketball that you could cut,” Berri told The Washington Post. “So that suggests to me what’s going on here is athletic directors are using this as an excuse.”
The University of Cincinnati’s athletics department did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.