What Becomes of Athletic Departments in Higher Education Mergers?

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What Becomes of Athletic Departments in Higher Education Mergers?


When higher education institutions merge (consolidate) to create a new institution, most academic and other departments are combined to reduce duplication of positions and services. This helps reduce the number of administrative positions and creates economies of scale which helps reduce operating costs. But what becomes of athletic departments in a merger?

There are generally three options for athletics when multiple higher education institutions consolidate into a single institution. The easiest to manage can be seen in the consolidation Middle Georgia College and Macon State College that resulted in what is today Middle Georgia State University, in which only one of the institution had athletics department. In this case, the single athletic department is continued.

The second option was seen in the consolidation of Georgia Southern University, which was a member of NCAA Division I, with Armstrong State University, which was a member of NCAA Division II. In this case, the choice was to discontinue Armstrong’s athletics (in what ended up being the Savannah campus of Georgia Southern University) and the Division I program was continued on the Statesboro (main) campus of Georgia Southern University. In this case, the decision appears to have been based on which division the merged school chose to continue and invest in. But even in the example provided, a number of questions remain. What happens with students interested in athletics who are on the Savannah campus of the merged entity? In the Georgia Southern University example, one institution was dissolved while the other remained in operation. But what happens if two institutions have operating athletic programs and both institutions are dissolved in favor of a new consolidated institution? These are complex questions that require careful analysis and lead to the third possibility.

A third option that may be considered when each of the merging institutions have an existing athletic program, is to keep both athletic departments open and run as separate departments on different campuses. Whether the departments are in the same association (NCAA, NAIA, etc.) or not, maintaining two athletic departments is an option that often needs to be considered. The mergers in the University System of Pennsylvania are an example in which six different institutions were merged into two (three in each case) yet each retained a separate athletic department on each campus, and compete against each other.

Maintaining separate athletic departments can become a necessity for enrollment. Mergers are designed to help the school become stronger and losing a percentage of student-athletes due to combining athletic departments can have a negative impact. At smaller, private institutions, student-athlete enrollment can comprise as much as 60%, if not more, of the overall student-body and adding new athletic teams or club sports for increasing enrollment. If two institutions are merged in order to increase the sustainability of both, losing any portion of the student population due to the loss of an athletic program needs to be balanced against overall costs of that program, financially and politically.

Considering which program to continue and which to discontinue will depend on many factors including the extent to which enrollment, branding, and fundraising depend on athletics, the costs of the program, Title IX and equity considerations, future potential, athletic association, conference, and much more. Determining how to manage these questions is a key component in the process of merging institutions of higher education.

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Writer: James Hagler, Consultant, SPH Consulting Group.

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