Coronavirus could cause major impacts for SLIAC schools


St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Commissioner Dick Kaiser saw collegiate games get canceled after 9/11. He remembered a campus measles outbreak canceling a team’s season. The coronavirus has presented a challenge he was not ready to handle.

And that’s after more than 40 years in collegiate athletics.

Kaiser said he worried about the state of the SLIAC going forward because all SLIAC schools are private colleges and universities. This means they do not receive funding from state governments.

The virus already took a toll on the SLIAC when MacMurray College announced last month it will cease operations after the 2020 spring semester. The institution will close after 174 years.

Like MacMurray, SLIAC competitor Eureka College holds a D rating on Forbes’ 2019 financial health grades for private institutions. D was the lowest grade given on the list.

Forbes used the Department of Education statistics from 2016 and 2017 to make the list. The grades were based on nine financial components that were averaged out into one score.

Forbes did not include Iowa Wesleyan University on its list, however the university showed financial difficulties in 2018 when University President Steven E. Titus sent a letter outlining the possible downfalls of its financials. The university survived due to donations.

Kaiser said he hoped the current situation does not lead to a domino effect for collegiate athletics down the road.

“It’s a very trying time for Division III,” Kaiser said. “It’s a trying time for collegiate institutions now totally.”

The latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Education show an increase in spending on athletics in the SLIAC from 2014-2018 despite eight of nine showing less net profit over that span.

At-risk Institutions

A key component of private colleges and universities is undergraduate enrollment according to Robert Zemsky. Zemsky is a college professor who published “The College Stress Test” last month. The book analyzes the viability of higher-ed institutions in America.

Zemsky said schools with undergraduate enrollment under 2,500 pose a risk for long-term sustainability. Webster is the only school in the SLIAC with undergraduate enrollment higher than 2,500 in the fall of 2018.

“You’ve got weight in the boat, you can steer it,” Zemsky said, speaking of Webster. “I’ve worked with institutions with 900 students. I’m sitting there telling them, ‘You don’t have enough weight in the boat.’”

Every other SLIAC competitor lacks that weight Zemsky spoke of. The institutions with less than 2,500 undergraduates, he said, are the ones possibly in trouble.

Eleven percent of Webster’s undergraduate students compete in a sport. The other schools in the conference have between 25 and 51 percent of their undergraduate body playing a sport.

Future Impact

Webster University Athletic Director Scott Kilgallon said the impact of MacMurray’s closure will be felt in the fall with them not being on the schedule. That means two less conference games for sports like basketball and one less for sports like soccer.

Kilgallon said coaches may replace the MacMurray games with non-conference games if they choose to. Other than lost games Kilgallon expressed the impact of losing a competitor within the SLIAC.

Every school in the conference pays annual dues to the SLIAC budget. MacMurray’s absence will mean a loss of 1/10 of those dues. Kaiser said it may lead to cuts in the overall budget that relate to running championships and programming for student-athletes.

The transition to a nine-school conference also affects grant money from the NCAA. Conferences receive grant money based on how many schools are in it.

Kaiser said the 10 percent loss of dues significantly impacts the overall picture. He added he is working on a budgetary outlook with services that the conference can maintain and services it may no longer perform.

Seven schools must compete in a conference for those teams to be eligible to compete in the NCAA tournament. Kaiser said he started reaching out to schools that could potentially fit in the SLIAC when he became commissioner in 2018. Every year he contacts small schools in the area from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the National Christian College Athletic Association, he said.

“I just remind them that we’re here and that we’d love to see them if they were interested in potentially looking at a Division III prospect,” Kaiser said.

If the SLIAC fell under the seven-school minimum requirement, the NCAA would allow a two-year grace period before it would begin to lose the automatic qualifying status for the tournament.

Kaiser raised the possibility of a merger with another conference if many more private higher-ed institutions begin to fall out of existence in the coming years.

“That’s way down the road,” Kaiser said. “But it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”

For now, Kaiser said, the goal is to find a way to maintain current operations and operate business as usual. The annual dues will be paid in August, allowing time to reconfigure the budget.

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