by Paul Kennedy @pkedit

College soccer is about halfway through its fall season.

The NCAA Division I season has been hugely scaled back with less than 60 women's programs and 20 men's programs having played at least one game. Most college programs hope to compete in the spring -- and the NCAA has approved plans for men's and women's national championships in the spring, at least at the Division I level.

Predictions that the COVID-19 pandemic will force schools to make wholesale cuts in soccer and other non-revenue sports have not yet come to pass. Less than 100 sports have been dropped at Division I schools so far, and some of the decisions are being challenged in court or under the threat of a lawsuit.

Only two Division I men's soccer programs have been dropped -- Appalachian State and Cincinnati -- resulting in a net drop of one program. Chicago State will add men's soccer as a part of a reshuffling of its sports offerings.

But that doesn't mean college sports are out of the woods yet. Far from it, colleges face huge challenges responding to the pandemic -- and just staying afloat.

Speaking at the Aspen Institute's Project Play Summit on Friday, NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline said college sports are a metaphor for the problems American society is having with the pandemic.

"We think about the economic disaster that COVID brought with us, in addition to the health and safety disaster, " he said. "If we really wanted to open up our society -- and part of that is sport, which is a great metaphor for society -- well, we didn't do it in a way that maybe could have happened. We don't have still a good national syndromic surveillance system. We don't have a national oversight of contact tracing or testing. And so what's happened is that those with more money have been able to carry things out because they can afford what testing is available and those without, they're struggling."

Hainline presented a stark picture for college sports -- and colleges themselves, not just at the Division I level, where revenue distributions from the NCAA to colleges in 2020 were cut by 70 percent because of the cancellation of the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament.

"We're probably at a place where 20-30 percent of Division I schools may not survive this pandemic," he said. "And that's a whole other thing that we need to think seriously about. At the D3 level, 25-50% percent of students are actually student-athletes. That's very different than, say, at a D1 school -- Ohio State -- where you may have 50,000 students, but only 700 student-athletes."

Hainline said the problems caused by the pandemic will extend into the future.

"Most of the financial projections -- and it's not just for the NCAA and for its schools -- are that things will probably start turning around in 2023," he said. "That seems like a long way away -- and it really is -- so, as a society, we're going to be struggling to keep up over the next couple of years."

The easy answer is to cut more non-revenue sports, but that flies in the face of what Hainline says is the essence of the NCAA.
"It really is not about two sports," he said, referring to football and basketball, the revenue producers. "It's about 24 sports. So my hope is that 24-sport vision is the one that prevails. And we understand that we're going to really continue to be who we are and offering opportunities across the board and that that's where we'll land. It's not going to be easy. I mean, these economic realities are stark."

Hainline says that sports need to think outside the box if they want to survive at colleges -- and points to the role national governing bodies can play.

"When you look at the sports that are being cut, it's the Olympic sports, the non-revenue sports," he said, "and one model, one opportunity is, how do we make these sports relevant? And to make them relevant, you need to make them financially independent."

Hainline cites tennis -- the sport hit hardest by Division I program cuts -- as an example because of the U.S. Tennis Association's active involvement in promoting tennis at colleges, making it a year-round sport and integrating college programs into local competitions. (He is the former USTA chief medical officer.)

Soccer is different from tennis because it is a team sport, and the size of its rosters is larger, but the same points play.

Right now, the big attraction of college soccer and the big money in the game is the athletic scholarship money. But what if you throw that out or it is no longer available?

Integrating year-round college soccer into existing leagues and competitions under the U.S. Soccer umbrella and helping make them year-round programs would be great for promoting soccer as a college opportunity and developing the amateur game that struggles at local levels.