Decision to drop swimming will save $1.2 million of anticipated $2.8 million cut faced by UW athletic department.

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To help make up for an anticipated $2.8 million budget cut in the athletic department, the University of Washington announced Friday it is eliminating its men’s and women’s swimming teams.

School officials said the decision would account for up to $1.2 million of the needed cuts.

“We are clearly operating in a time of economic distress and we are forced to make decisions that will help us maintain long-term financial stability,” said Scott Woodward, the UW athletic director, in a statement. “The state is reducing its funding of higher education at the highest rate in the country. The increase in the cost of tuition, combined with the decreased return on the university’s endowment investments, will add considerable expense to the cost of our scholarships. Since we are a self-sustaining operation with no funding assistance from the university or the state, we must find ways to reduce expenses and increase revenues in these difficult times.”

Senior captain Jon Banker was surprised by the news.

“It’s just unreal based on the level of success we’ve had,” Banker said. “What we did at NCAAs this year (the UW women were 15th, the men 16th) is a huge statement about the level of commitment and determination that has been a part of the program. It is baffling that they’d want to cut a program that has shown such great success and improvement.”

Erez Fern, a junior swimmer from Israel, took the news hard.

“It’s really a sad day,” he said. “Devastating news. Nobody expected something like this. It’s really sad. I understand why, the budget cuts and the financial reasons. But swimming is such a pure sport. We do it because we genuinely love it and it has a huge tradition at the U-Dub, I don’t know why they would want to cut swimming.”

The swimmers were told of the news in a brief meeting with Woodward at 8 a.m. Friday. They will be offered the chance to remain on scholarship in school if they wish. However, they will also be able to transfer immediately without having to sit out.

There are 34 swimmers in the program, 23 with remaining eligibility. Two high school seniors who had signed to swim at UW will have their scholarships honored for a year but also will be released immediately from their letters-of-intent so they can enroll at other schools.

Fern said he probably would not transfer.

“I’ve been swimming since I was six years old. It becomes part of your identity and I don’t want to quit because of something like this,” he said. “I want to quit when I feel like it’s time to quit. You want to quit on your terms. So I’ll probably just keep training with some other swimmers here.

“I know there are hard times and this is really the first time I’ve personally felt the bad economic situation we’re in now. But it gets to everybody eventually. That’s life.”

Woodward said that discontinuing a sport is one of the most difficult decisions an athletic department can make but said in a separate interview with The Times that it was unavoidable given the financial challenges the department faces.

The department’s revenues have taken a hit in recent years because of declining returns on its endowments due to the economy as well as “unsuccessful football seasons the past six years where season-ticket sales are flat or down,” Woodward said. He said travel and tuition increases have also played a role.

The $2.8 million to $3 million budget cuts account for about four percent of a projected athletic department budget of $65 million next season, Woodward said. Of sports that contribute revenue for that budget, football accounts for 85 percent — men’s basketball the other 15.

But football season tickets have decreased markedly the past decade as the on-field fortunes have eroded — UW had 55,976 season-ticket holders, not including students, in 1996 but had 43,497 last year. The Huskies have sold 37,700 for next season, an official said.

Woodward also said dropping swimming was necessary to avoid dipping into the athletic department’s reserve, estimated at about $7 million. Woodward said maintaining the reserve fund is important to combat emergencies and also because the department is self-sustaining.

“It’s more imperative for us because we are a stand-alone department that does not have tuition or taxpayer money to run the operation,” he said.

Swimming ranked as UW’s sixth-most expensive sport of the 12 that include both men’s and women’s teams, with expenses last year of close to $1.5 million. The major part of that expense is 23.9 full scholarships, with travel also contributing.

“Our teams are so close, we’re just always together and now we’re all going to get separated,” UW women’s captain Jen Gong said. “I think that’s one of the hardest parts right now. It’s just a lost feeling.”

The Huskies have fielded a men’s swimming team since 1932 and a women’s team since 1975. The program has long been at a competitive disadvantage because UW does not have an adequate on-campus pool and holds practices and meets at the King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way. Husky Pool was built in 1937 and features six 25-yard lanes. The facility does not contain a diving well and is not of sufficient standard to host college competitions, a school release said. Diving is included in the scores of meets.

For some of the same reasons, former UW athletic director Barbara Hedges announced she was cutting the program in 2000 before deciding to keep it after an outpouring of support.

Woodard, however, said that swimming will almost certainly not be returning in any form. He said it would cost roughly $30 million to build an on-campus pool.

Woodward said last week’s decision not to hold the Apple Cup at Qwest Field, which could have put an additional $1 million or so into UW’s athletic department each year, had no impact on the decision to cut swimming. Woodward said that money would have added to the budget but said “we have bigger problems than that. We wouldn’t have done that game until 2010 or 2011 so it wouldn’t have helped this fiscal year or probably even the next one.”

The decision to cut swimming leaves just five Pac-10 schools that offer men’s swimming, none in the Northwest — the conference mandates that six schools have to participate in a sport for it to be sanctioned by the Pac-10. Eight Pac-10 schools will continue to offer women’s swimming.

The decision reduces the number of sports sponsored at the UW to 21, which ranks among the top half among schools in the Pacific-10 Conference, the school said in a release.

Washington is one of at least three Pac-10 schools to announce this year it is cutting sports — Stanford and Arizona State have also made cuts.

Woodward said it is also likely the department will have layoffs in coming weeks though there will be no more cuts of sports, he said. The department runs on a July 1-June 30 fiscal year budget so layoffs and cuts have to be in place by July 1. Friday’s decision came with the release of the overall school budget after the state approved its fiscal year budget earlier this week.

It is anticipated that Washington State could make announcements today about cuts in its athletic department.

WSU president Elson Floyd sent a letter to supporters and alumni Thursday night saying that “specific details” of the university’s budget would be released today and that “I am also cutting the Athletics Department.”

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or; Times staff columnist Steve Kelley contributed to this article.