Winthrop University’s Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution Friday to cut the men’s and women’s tennis programs from its athletics department, citing financial hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit college sports programs across the country.
The cut is effective immediately. Students will retain their scholarships through their fourth academic year, and students “who signed National Letters of Intent for the 2020-21 year” will retain scholarships for the upcoming year, a release states.
Per NCAA rules, students are immediately eligible to play if they choose to transfer to another school.
“When I took the job at Winthrop, I truly thought that this was a conversation I’d never have to have as long as I’m the athletics director,” Winthrop athletic director Dr. Ken Halpin told The Herald after the meeting. “Even as of a few weeks ago, I still honestly thought we’d never have to do this at Winthrop.”
Halpin said he and his staff spent “countless hours” looking for a way to “get through this.”
“We’re going to wake up tomorrow with our student-athletes and their well-being as our No. 1 priority,” Halpin said. “Our staff members that this effects, we’re going to check on them and see how they’re doing. ...
“If (athletes) want to transfer, we’re going to help them transfer. If they want to stay, we’re going to honor their scholarships and help them stay. Our only priority is on the people that this is impacting.”
The tennis programs did not bring in any ticket sales, according to a 2019 NCAA financial summary report obtained by The Herald via a Freedom of Information Act request, and their total operating expenses were over $813,000.
Winthrop is the latest school to cut a program after the 2020 spring sports collegiate season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Furman, another school in South Carolina with Division I athletics, cut its baseball program in late May. And Appalachian State and East Carolina, two North Carolina schools, cut multiple non-revenue sports before Furman.
‘Financial limitations resulting from COVID-19’
The tennis teams at Winthrop are among the most successful of any in the school’s athletic program. The women’s tennis team has won five Big South Conference championships since 2014, including the 2019 conference championship, and earned an NCAA tournament victory in 2018.
The women’s tennis team has won 21 conference championship titles — no other league member has won more than three tournament titles.
The program also has seen considerable individual accomplishment. In 2019, Lauren Proctor became the second player in the Big South Conference’s nearly 40-year history to be voted the Big South Player of the Year four times.
The men’s tennis team, meanwhile, won a Big South Conference title in 2015 and won the 2018 regular season conference championship. The men’s program has captured nine regular season championships since 1997.
“With recent elevated costs of Division I athletics, combined with financial limitations resulting from COVID-19, it became clear that Winthrop had a structural issue with athletics budgeting,” the release states. “... Due to these issues, now was the time to make this incredibly difficult decision.”
Winthrop NCAA Division I standing, finances
In 2019, Winthrop had eight men’s sports and 10 women’s sports. Winthrop, thus, is edging closer to the NCAA’s minimum requirement that its Division I member schools field either seven women’s teams and seven men’s sports teams, or eight women’s teams and six men’s sports teams.
Financial reports show the Winthrop tennis programs brought in $631,550 worth of total operating revenue in 2019 — $230,889 of which was from student fees.
Much of the rest of the programs’ revenue came from the university: Over $348,000 came in direct institutional support — and over $97,000 came in indirect institutional support, which includes costs covered by the institution to athletics but not charged to the athletic department, such as facilities maintenance, security, risk management and utilities.
In an interview in April that focused on how coronavirus will affect Winthrop’s athletic finances in the immediate future, Winthrop AD Halpin told The Herald that the cancellation of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was a huge hit to Winthrop.
Because of the tournament’s cancellation, the NCAA’s distribution to its 32 member conferences was cut by nearly two-thirds.
“The NCAA Tournament is what’s so important,” Halpin said. “... If we have an NCAA Tournament, then that accounts for close to 90% of the NCAA annual operating revenue. If you have the tournament, all that revenue goes back.”
Winthrop receives a majority of its athletic revenue from the university. Thus, its athletics program is dependent on the revenue from its campus — things like from students living and paying for dorms, people paying for food at campus dining facilities, etc. — as well as the larger state economy, which funds the public university with taxes.
And both the campus and state economies have been stifled by the coronavirus.
Winthrop alumni react to tennis program cut: ‘It doesn’t make sense’
Many Winthrop tennis alumni expressed sadness and frustration after the decision to cut the program that is so closely tied to their college experiences.
Chase Alteri, a Clover native who played tennis at Winthrop before graduating in 2014, told The Herald via phone interview that he was confused why the tennis program was singled-out as the sport to cut from Winthrop athletics.
“It’s the most successful sport that Winthrop has ever had,” Alteri said. “Point blank. I would wholeheartedly agree with the decision if we were useless for 30-plus years. Coach Cid Carvalho was just inducted into the Hall of Fame and on the All-Decade team. It’s just upsetting. ...
“It doesn’t make sense where you take away your most successful sport. We understand that it’s not a money-grabber, but it doesn’t suck money either out of the budget. We were very low maintenance.”
Longtime Winthrop tennis coach, Carvalho, is an unquestioned fixture in Winthrop tennis — an embodiment of the success of the program as a whole.
The coach, who’s from Brazil, retired in May 2019 after accumulating one of the most decorated careers in the history of the Big South Conference. He coached both the men’s and women’s teams for decades before moving to coach only the women’s team in 2011, bringing the program 20 regular season titles and 21 conference championships since taking the helm in 1986.
“It’s very sad to see a program end, especially a successful one such as the Winthrop women’s tennis team,” women’s tennis head coach Vivian Segnini said in a statement. “I’m sorry for Cid Carvalho because I know all the work that he put for more than 30 years in order to build this program and I’m sorry for all the players (who) are so passionate about representing Winthrop and had their lives impacted by this decision.”
‘The right way to go about it’
Luka Stanic, another Winthrop tennis alum, told The Herald that the decision effectively blindsided many Winthrop tennis alumni.
“That was disappointing,” he said. “At least, what I think most people would expect is an opportunity to reach out to the alumni and say, ‘Hey, we’re having budget problems and one of the at-risk things is the tennis program. Are you guys interested in trying to find a way?’ That would have been the right way to go about it.”
Stanic said this decision affects more than the people who are currently on the teams or are interested in being on the teams — that it also affects those who played on it before and had pride in doing so.
“It doesn’t seem like anyone that is remotely related to the tennis program knew about this until after the decision was made and was passed to the Board of Trustees,” Stanic said.
In a written statement in the schoolwide release, men’s tennis head coach Josh Collins said he is “deeply saddened and disappointed in Winthrop’s decision” to discontinue the tennis programs.
“There are so many incredible players, coaches, and people that have poured their hearts into this program and I am so thankful for each of them,” Collins said. “The legacy of our Winthrop tennis family will live on as the bond in our program transcends tennis.”