T-shirts are displayed for sale at a store on campus at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The school is cutting athletic programs to make up for budget shortfalls. Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Dartmouth College has become the latest school to do the previously unthinkable: close some of its sports programs for good.

It joins Stanford University and Brown University, among the wealthiest institutions in higher education, which have said in recent weeks they’re ending participation in programs including golf, rowing, fencing and squash. While few expect major sports such as football and basketball to be eliminated at most places, the cuts announced so far signal a change to decades of tradition at American universities.

Organized sports are a prominent feature of U.S. college life, providing a route for students to gain entry and some scholarships while also bringing in revenue for schools. But facing long-term declines in enrollment because of demographic trends and extreme financial pressure from the COVID-19 pandemic, universities are ditching campus mainstays as part of broader overhauls.

“This is the beginning of a domino effect,” said Chris Lincoln, author of “Playing the Game: Inside Athletic Recruiting in the Ivy League” and a Vermont-based college consultant for athletes. “These are not going to be the only schools cutting athletic teams.”

Jason Bryant of Mat Talk Online, a website that follows college wrestling, is tracking all of the sports programs that have been eliminated since the start of the pandemic – about 240 as of Thursday. They include men’s cross country at the University of Akron and women’s tennis at Wright State. The cuts have affected men’s and women’s teams almost equally.

Just four schools have cut their football programs while 20 have dropped basketball. Those sports are traditionally the biggest revenue generators. The most widely cut sport by far was tennis, with 48 programs scrapped, followed by 23 golf and soccer squads.

Boise State University has dropped baseball, swimming and diving. Old Dominion University in Virginia cut wrestling and the University of Cincinnati jettisoned men’s soccer.

Maintaining teams is expensive, with coaching salaries, recruiting, team travel and other costs, Lincoln said.

Brown said it planned to reduce its teams to 29 from 38, but in June said it would reinstate the varsity status of its men’s cross country and track and field teams. The cuts at Brown weren’t related to the pandemic and had more to do with fielding winning teams, the university said in May. It had won just 2.8% of titles in the Ivy League over the past decade.

The average Division I school fielded 19 sports teams, according to a 2018 study by the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Dartmouth, with a $5.7 billion endowment, faces a projected $150 million deficit because of the pandemic. Eliminating the teams, closing a school-owned country club and an ongoing administrative restructuring in athletics are projected to save more than $2 million, the Hanover, New Hampshire-based school said in a statement Thursday.

Stanford, which has a $27.7 billion endowment, said in a statement Wednesday that funding 36 varsity sports became “a serious and growing financial challenge.”

The cuts – 11 teams including volleyball, field hockey, lightweight rowing, men’s rowing, and co-ed and women’s sailing – affect more than 240 students and 22 coaches. Their alumni won 20 national championships and 27 Olympic medals.

Stanford said it wanted to confront the financial challenge associated with athletics – which arose prior to the pandemic – before it worsened.

The news “crushed” Jon Root, 55, a member of the 1988 Olympic Gold medal U.S. team for men’s volleyball who played at Stanford in the 1980s.

“This is hard for me to digest. I don’t think men’s volleyball belonged on that list,” Root said in an interview. “You’re setting a dangerous precedent. Now you’re taking opportunity away from young adults from all of the 11 sports.”

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