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Pluto: University of Akron cuts baseball - should football be next?
Terry Pluto says an idea to drop Akron football to a lower level doesn't solve the bigger problem - a massive stadium debt
by WKSU's AMANDA RABINOWITZ


Morning Edition Host
Amanda Rabinowitz
 
Akron football runs an $8 million deficit, while baseball cost $700,000. Still, Terry Pluto says simply dropping football isn't the answer.
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The University of Akron is among a growing number of schools that are cutting sports programs to help stem huge deficits. Earlier this month, Akron announced it was dropping baseball as part of $40 million in cuts.

WKSU commentator Terry Pluto says the school could eliminate baseball and still keep its status in its Division I conference. But, he says those who want to next take aim at the school's lowly football team are missing a much bigger, more complicated problem.
LISTEN: Terry Pluto on University of Akron sports cuts

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It was two weeks ago when the University of Akron announced it was eliminating baseball as part of $40 million in cuts. Terry Pluto says baseball was selected because the The Mid-American Conference requires schools to have four sports: Football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball. "Drop one of those, and a school is out of the MAC," Pluto says. 

Why does Akron need the MAC?
So, what's the big deal about staying in the MAC? The big deal, he responds, is in sports beyond football.

“Akron’s actually pretty good in the Mid-American Conference. Basketball -- Keith Dambrot, two NCAA appearances, bunch of NIT appearances; they win 20 games every year. Women’s basketball (over the) last three years, two NIT appearances, an NCAA appearance. The track team has won some national titles for individuals. And then you have soccer, which is always ranked in the top 20."

And he says even the baseball program, "Which had been terrible...[coach] Rick Rembielak got it back to a .500 team” over the last four years.

Pluto also says MAC football comes with a 13-year TV contract with ESPN. That's worth reportedly about $670,000 annually to each MAC school. 

And he says MAC schools can play major conference opponents on the road and pocket between $750,000 to $1.5 million per game. That cost will continue to rise.

Downgrading Akron football
Still, what the school gets out of the MAC doesn't offset the $8 million deficit that its football program runs. Baseball cost $700,000. Couple that with the lowest football attendance in all of Division I, and the university's Faculty Senate wants the school to respond. 

The Senate suggests that the football program drop a level, from the FBS to the Football Championship Subdivision. It's where Youngstown State now competes. The Zips were in that classification for years and moved up to Division I in 1987.

Pluto acknowledges that would save money.

“Instead of giving out 85 scholarships, you’re giving out 63. Instead of paying Terry Bowden $400,000, which is right in the middle of the pack of the Mid American Conference (No. 108 nationally), you could pay your coach about $150- to $200-grand.”

A big debt in a big stadium
Still, Terry Pluto says dropping football to a lower level doesn't address a much bigger program: Its football stadium. Akron spends about $4.5 million each year to pay off debt on InfoCision Stadium, which was built in 2009. It also plays $900,000 a year to pay off its nearby field house. Akron will be paying on the stadium for 24 more years, the field house for 19. 

“They built the stadium hoping people will come. They built the stadium hoping the team would win. Their first year in the stadium, they won three games. The next three years, they won a grand total of three games, (going 1-11) over and over," Pluto says. 

“An amazing thing is they thought this was going to help the program and it was even worse. The last two years Terry Bowden’s been 5-7 so it’s a little better, but they were dead last in attendance in Division 1 last year, there was a little over 9,000 fans."

“The problem is you’ve got to find a way to get people into the stadium. The only other thing is if you really want to go drastic and you don’t care, is you play Division III sports. You would do that within a couple years. You play Hiram, you play Mount Union.”

Pluto says, "If Akron really wanted to just save money in football and athletics, drop down to Division III." On that level, the school offers no scholarships. Still, he says that doesn't solve the issue of the stadium debt and envisions that Akron playing Division III schools won't help attendance. 

The big picture
“I just think it’s tough for these schools to draw here," Pluto says. "Because on the weekends, it’s Ohio State and it’s the Browns. And this holds for Kent, it holds for Akron, it holds for a lot of these different schools.”

Pluto says he’s been searching for a “grand conclusion” but “didn’t come up with any other than they have a real problem here. "The university’s got financial trouble everywhere," Pluto says. "We can’t just have the football blinders on and say forget the MAC without realizing it’s part of the picture."

LISTEN: Terry Pluto on Brad Zimmer: The next Indians phenom?
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