See more of the story

The Gophers didn’t make the decision to cut three sports in the heat of the COVID-19 moment.

That ax has been swinging above their heads for years.

Athletic director Mark Coyle faced questions from the university’s Board of Regents on Friday about his call to eliminate men’s tennis, men’s gymnastics and men’s track and field (indoor and outdoor). Coyle said when he announced the cuts Thursday they stemmed from a combination of financial difficulties and Title IX issues.

But Regent Mike Kenyanya asked Coyle if the Title IX compliance worries were overdue, with the coronavirus pandemic as the “the tipping point.”

“Without question, COVID has sped up this conversation,” Coyle said, adding his department had been evaluating its sports offerings for a few years before the pandemic.

The Gophers stand to lose $75 million in revenue without fall sports after the Big Ten canceled them a month ago. Cutting the three men’s sports after the 2020-21 season will save the department only $2 million in fiscal year 2022 and an annual savings of $2.7 million once all the athletes with scholarships in those sports have graduated.

But reducing the number of male athletes by 58 will help the department’s ratio better match that of the undergraduate population, which is 54% female.

Coyle said the coaches within the department worked hard in recent years to keep up with campus’ increasing female enrollment through roster tinkering. But some of the women’s teams were growing larger than the national average.

As for the suggestion of creating an endowment to save teams from the chopping block, athletic department CFO Rhonda McFarland estimated each sport would need a $60 million endowment to become sustainable.

“You’re talking significant, significant amounts of money, millions upon millions of dollars, that would have to be raised immediately,” Coyle said, “so we could use that interest to support those programs.”

Regent Thomas Anderson asked why the Gophers weren’t adding women’s teams to balance the Title IX numbers. Coyle, though, didn’t really see that as an option. He said adding a women’s team would cost millions to start up for scholarships, coaches, athletic medicine staff, strength and condition personnel and more. And that’s still not enough.

“Adding just one women’s sports would not solve the issue,” Coyle said. “We would have to add more than one women’s teams to keep the [Title IX] numbers in balance, given the difference.”

Coaches, athletes and alum of those three soon-to-be-cut Gophers programs have been vocal about their disapproval, starting online petitions and asking Twitter followers to contact the Board of Regents before the October meeting where the regents likely will vote to make Coyle’s recommendations official. But both the regents and Coyle seemed resigned.

Because even if some third party did come through with multimillions, the department still wouldn’t have the cash to remedy the Title IX concerns.

“When we arrived here four years ago, we had these parallel tracks with respect to the financial reality of what we’re dealing with and then also the Title IX component,” Coyle said. “As we review our programs from a Title IX perspective, these are difficult choices we have to make to remain in compliance.”