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Solutions to the Baseball Scholarship Crunch

Baseball occupies a funny place in college athletics right now. On the one hand, it probably has never been a better time for college baseball. The sport has a grand new home in Omaha for its championship series. Schools are investing money in the sport and taking it far more seriously than previously. The NCAA Tournament is profitable. The expansion of cable sports and conference networks have created a need for summer inventory that baseball is uniquely able to fill. Even MLB helped out with new slotting rules that should send more top prospects to college.

But at the same time, baseball is under threat. More investment without the revenue of football or men’s basketball means the sport can get very expensive very quickly. Baseball is routinely put on the chopping block when the budget gets tight, with Cal being the most visible example. Baseball is also a sport divided, not between haves and have nots but between North and South.

But one of the least talked about threats to baseball is its scholarship crunch. FungoFrogs, writing for the TCU blog Frogs O’ War, broke down the issue, specifically as it relates to private schools with high tuition. Take a few minutes to read the post, then come back here.

In the meantime, I’ll point out that I spent three years not in the front lines, but right behind them in exactly the situation FungoFrogs outlined. While at LMU I had to try and to help baseball coaches stretch the 11.7 baseball scholarships at a private school with expensive tuition, competing against established UC and CSU schools that were (at the time) dirt cheap by comparison.

There is also one aspect to add that someone would not know unless they have seen equivalency recruiting up close. Take the hypothetical the post lays about different financial aid offers from TCU, Texas, Baylor, and Ole Miss. Assume the family could afford TCU at a 25% scholarship. Odds are that the player will still go to Ole Miss. Why? Because the trend is not for athletes to pick their preferred school out of those they can afford. The trend is for athletes to get the best deal from the schools they can live with attending.

The Short-Term Solution

As FungoFrogs points out, there’s no easy solution. He offers one:

One thing the NCAA could do is start addressing the state scholarship’s that have started to pop up in Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, giving further aid to those programs and student-athletes that other states, namely Texas, do not enjoy.

That is highly unlikely, not because of NCAA incompetence as he suggests, but because the NCAA is pushing in exactly the opposite direction. In 2011, the NCAA adopted two proposal 2010–63 and 2010–64 as part of a relatively minor financial aid reform. They allowed student-athletes to receive more state need- and merit-based grants without those grants counting against the team’s scholarship limit. Even in cases where the institution (but not the athletic department) has a say in who gets the money.

Those two proposals came out of a package of concepts developed by the Division I Awards, Benefits, and Financial Aid Cabinet. One of the concepts that did not become a formal proposal was to deregulate nonathletics aid completely. That means athletes would be able to receive any federal, state, or outside aid, need- or merit-based, and it would not be combined with their athletic scholarship when calculating the school’s equivalency.

As a broad generalization, this helps private schools more than it helps public schools. As a general rule, private schools have a higher tuition discount rate than public schools. If a school has a tuition discount rate of 25%, that means on average, students receive a 25% scholarship from the school. So if the tuition is $20,000, on average the university only nets $15,000 for each student it enrolls.

This is the result of more institutional financial aid at private schools, which often have bigger endowments and more aggressive financial aid policies. The admissions office is recruiting just like the athletic department is, trying to get the proper class profile. And they use financial aid just like a coach uses athletic scholarships.

It would be best for TCU, and many other private schools, for the NCAA to go all the way and deregulate nonathletics aid entirely. That continues to be discussed, although if proposed it will be met with stiff opposition. The elephant in this room is Stanford, whose massive endowment and huge financial aid pool would become even more powerful in recruiting if it could be mixed and matched with athletics aid more freely.

The Long-Term Solution

FungoFrogs dismisses it, but the idea of expanding baseball’s scholarship limit is not as far off the table as one might think. Back in January 2012, the Board of Directors refused to adopt a set of scholarship reductions in football and women’s basketball that might have freed up some scholarships to move around. Volleyball was first on the list of schools to get an additional scholarship, because the libero was introduced without adding financial aid.

But baseball was close behind, because of the concept of scholarship pressure that the NCAA has been studying. Scholarship pressure is defined by combining the average percentage of the scholarship limit that is awarded and the average scholarship each athlete receives. So if schools are awarding all or almost all of the total scholarships, and athletes are receiving relatively small scholarships (or there are a lot of walk-ons), the sport is under more scholarship pressure. Baseball and lacrosse were right near the top of all sports.

The Rules Working Group is currently looking at which sports should be equivalency sports vs. headcount sports and whether any of the limits should be changed. Baseball will not receive anything crazy, like becoming a headcount sport or getting 20 scholarships to spread around. But a return to 13, or even something in the 13–15 range would not be out of the question.

It will be a knockdown, drag out fight though. It might make it through the Board of Directors, but it will be draw a lot of opposition during the override period. Both mid-major schools and Northern schools will object. An override vote would be close enough that it might be decided by schools who do not sponsor baseball, but would still be allowed to vote on the proposal. An increase for baseball could also be part of a larger financial aid proposal, meaning it could become collateral damage to another financial aid change.

Are you ready for the NEXT STEP!