School dropping baseball to save money

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Northern Iowa will eliminate its baseball program after this season, a cost-cutting measure officials say will save the school about $400,000.

Athletic director Troy Dannen made the announcement Monday, three days after the baseball team began what is now slated to be its last season.

Dannen noted an expected athletic department budget shortfall of up to $600,000 next year, thanks to a 9 percent drop in state funding.

The baseball program is expected to cost around $485,000 to run in the 2009 fiscal year but only bring in about $87,000 in ticket sales and fundraising.

Northern Iowa also plans to reduce its athletics travel budget by $200,000 and leave some vacant staff positions unfilled to help fill the gap left by state funding cuts.

Northern Iowa coach Rick Heller broke the news to the team Friday -- right after its season opener at Arkansas-Little Rock -- and Dannen spoke with the team for 90 minutes Monday.

"They're emotional. I'm emotional, and they're mad. They should be mad because they've worked hard for a very long time to make this program go. We're at a point where, as much as we want it to go, we can no longer fund it," Dannen said.

Dannen said the athletic department based its decision on potential cost savings, facilities, weather and travel requirements and gender equity issues.

The school said it decided to eliminate one sport rather than spread the cuts across the entire athletic department because of concerns that doing so would hamper the ability of the teams to stay competitive.

The elimination of baseball leaves Northern Iowa with 17 varsity teams, 10 of which are women's programs.

Dannen said that the decision to cut baseball wasn't directly related to the NCAA's Title IX gender equity requirements. He said the school wouldn't have considered dropping any sports if it weren't for the pending budget cuts.

But because 57 percent of Northern Iowa's students are women compared to just 39 percent of its athletes, Dannen said cutting a women's program wasn't feasible.

"This isn't a matter of equity. This is a matter of funding," Dannen said.

The team has 35 players, and the NCAA will let those with remaining eligibility transfer to other schools without sitting out a year. Those who remain at Northern Iowa will have their scholarships honored.

Northern Iowa has gone 248-254-1 since Heller took over before the 2000 season.

The Panthers, who were picked to finish seventh in the nine-team Missouri Valley Conference this season, don't have their own ballpark, playing instead at nearby Waterloo Riverfront Stadium. They'll also spend the first month of the season on the road to avoid playing in cold weather.

Dannen offered a possible, but highly unlikely, plan for saving the program.

He said it would take about $10 million in endowment funds to sustain baseball long-term. If $1.2 million could be raised in the next two months, the baseball team could survive for three years while giving the school time to build that endowment.

But since ticket sales and fundraising isn't expected to crack even $90,000 this year, few expect that to happen.

Northern Iowa's final home game is scheduled for May 16 against Bradley.

"I'm not going to sit here and pretend that I'm not mad because I am. I'm angry. I don't particularly like the way [the decision] was handled," Heller said. "I really feel sorry for the players. That's where my focus is right now."

Northern Iowa is the state's second Division I baseball program to be eliminated this decade. Iowa State cut its program in 2001.

Northern Iowa previously dropped men's and women's gymnastics in 1981 and women's field hockey in 1983. Men's and women's swimming and tennis also were dropped in 2002, but the women's teams were later reinstated.