Effects of economy hit college softball

February, 27, 2009
As positive as the vibes were last weekend at the Cathedral City Classic, from the number of top teams on the field to the number of fans streaming through the gates, news regarding a team not in attendance put a damper on the start of softball season. The University of Vermont's recent decision to eliminate its softball program, in addition to its baseball program, is one warning sign as to how the struggling economy might affect the sport at the college level.

Making softball work in Burlington was always going to be a challenge. Massachusetts and certain Big Ten northerly outposts get past weather issues by playing away from home until late March or early April, but it doesn't make it easy to attract either the recruits who will generate wins and community interest or the fans who will generate at least some sort of positive revenue contribution. But in the end, it wasn't the cold and snow that did in Vermont as much as the nationwide cooling economy. The program fell as part of schoolwide cutbacks designed to save more than $10 million.

And that has repercussions well beyond the Green Mountain State, which became clear talking to Hawaii coach Bob Coolen at the Cathedral City Classic in California. The architect of a tremendous story two seasons ago when he led the Rainbow Wahine solidly into the Top 25 and within a game of the Women's College World Series, Coolen arrived in Cathedral City this spring with a struggling team and a stripped-down traveling party, all thanks to budget cutbacks.

"It's killing us," Coolen said of the economy.

Coolen is no longer able to bring key staff on the road, including volunteer coach John Nakamura (the team's hitting coach and someone who has been associated with the team in various capacities for more than two decades, including as head coach), as well as the team's manager and sports information director. He has also been told no additional expenses for this season will be approved for the program after March, and even now, he's spending extra time working with travel agents to find last-minute deals for the team's travel.

On one hand, new and revamped facilities at schools throughout the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and elsewhere offer an optimistic outlook for the college game's continued growth (although it's difficult to envision too many more major projects gaining approval in the short term). But when Hawaii, a well-coached program that earned its respect on the field, finds itself checking the proverbial couch cushions for change, it makes it easy to wonder whether what happened at Vermont is just the first domino.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?