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Budgets: a balance game

Utah's college athletic programs tackle funding challenges

Utah State University Athletics Director Scott Barnes
Utah State University Athletics Director Scott Barnes
Associated Press

After last year's football team went undefeated and was invited to play in the Sugar Bowl, the University of Utah received an unexpected boost of $1.6 million to its athletic program.

Yet, despite that unforeseen windfall, just four years after netting another $2.5 million from a Fiesta Bowl appearance, the Utah athletic department is facing a shortfall of approximately $250,000 at the end of this fiscal year. And next year could be even worse, says Utah athletic director Chris Hill.

"It's what keeps me awake at night," Hill said.

Such is the state of college athletics, which is facing the same economic challenges as the rest of American society.

Last month, Mountain West Conference member New Mexico announced that it would be making 10 percent cuts across the board. A story last week in the New York Times listed several schools, including Washington, Massachusetts, Cincinnati and Stanford, that would be cutting teams to save money on their budgets.

Despite cutbacks around the country, a report commissioned by the NCAA that was released last month showed that major college programs bumped their spending by nearly 11 percent annually, more than double the average rise in universities' overall spending. Top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision schools increased their spending from $31 million in 2004 to $42 million in 2007.

That's more than the entire athletic budgets for the six four-year universities in Utah, which are each having to make cutbacks in order to cope in these tough economic times. Coaches' salaries are escalating, travel costs are higher and donations have diminished. It all adds up to a quandary for athletic departments.

While only Utah and Utah State will admit to finishing in the red this year, none of the other four schools are rolling in cash. Each is right on the edge of losing money and still might before the end of the fiscal year on July 1.

At BYU, athletic director Tom Holmoe says his department has had to scale back in several areas, but he doesn't anticipate a deficit this year thanks to a reserve fund from recent successful years he'll be able to dip into.

Weber State has already laid off two people from a staff about half as big as Utah's and BYU's.

Southern Utah has the added challenge of a new sport next fall (women's volleyball), which will cost an extra couple of hundred thousand dollars.

At Utah Valley, the department has made two significant budget cuts this year and faces increased costs as it joins a new conference next year.

Worst off is Utah State with a deficit approaching a million dollars. First-year athletic director Scott Barnes is excited about a recently passed student referendum, which will add $2 million per year to USU athletics, but he says even that won't be enough to keep the Aggies above water in the long term.

"Running an athletic department is a lot more expensive than people realize," said Utah's Hill, who has run Utah's successful athletic program for two decades.

Utah's athletic budget is around $27 million, up $5 million from five years ago and approximately triple what it was when Hill took the job 20 years ago.

The university relies on donations from boosters, revenue from three sports — football, men's basketball and women's gymnastics — and student fees. Utah gets some institutional help, but less than most schools, according to Hill. Despite the extra money from the Sugar Bowl and generous donors, Ute athletics won't make money this year.

"We'll be about $200,000 to $300,000 in the red," Hill said. "We'll use some of our bowl money to pay that deficit this year. That's going to help get us through next year also."

While Utah hasn't had to lay off staff, "we've pretty much told everybody, 'Hey, there's no budget increases this year, no salary increases,' " Hill said. "We're cutting out as many things as we can, and we've asked our coaches to keep a flat budget or reduce in certain areas."

One thing that might be noticed by Utah fans is the elimination of the annual Fan Fest in August, which brings coaches and players together to interact with fans. Although the popular event has several sponsors, including the Deseret News, it costs the U. $20,000.

Hill said other possible cutbacks might include a printed newsletter for fans, no outside speakers for the student-athlete conference, putting media guides online or reducing the offseason for nontraditional sports such as soccer, softball and volleyball.

However, of the latter, that wouldn't be done unless there was some NCAA legislation for all schools.

"Unilaterally disarming is a difficult thing," Hill said.

When asked if any of the 100-plus athletic department staff has been cut, Hill replied, "Not yet," indicating that it could happen next year when things are expected to get tougher.

At Utah State, despite another projected deficit, there is optimism thanks to a successful men's basketball program under Stew Morrill, a renewed hope for football under new coach Gary Andersen and an athletic director who is trying to upgrade the program while being handcuffed with one of the smallest budgets among Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

"We already fund most of our programs at a minimum level," Barnes said. "So we've had to really focus on overhauling our funding model. We've run a deficit for so long, our funding model was broke."

Barnes compares his budget to a three-legged stool — self-generated funds, institutional support and student fees.

"When you compare a school like ours to Utah or BYU, our ability for self-generated revenue is not at the same level," he said. "Our alumni base isn't as large and our markets aren't as large and prosperous for us to generate that kind of revenue."

Because of that, USU has had to rely more on student fees and institutional support. The referendum to increase student fees enough to put $2 million into the athletic budget was controversial on campus but vital for Utah State to remain a viable FBS (formerly called Division I) school.

"We were fortunate to get a student referendum passed on our campus, which will certainly answer one of the three," Barnes said. "But all along we've said it isn't the total answer to our problems, just one piece of the puzzle. We have to all work harder and smarter in self-generated area. We're getting closer but we're not there yet."

Barnes said they've overhauled the entire development operations at USU, created a new model for selling season tickets and found creative ways for generating external revenues.

USU employees already participated in a five-day furlough to save money, and Barnes is looking at any means to save more, including eliminating land lines, making media guides paperless and cutting back on administrative travel.

"We're saving tens of thousands, but not millions like we need," he said. "At a time like this, it's even more difficult to generate those external revenues, but we have seen progress."

The Aggies have always relied on "guarantee" games in football, which has often hurt the program because of too many early-season losses. Barnes wants to continue those games on a limited basis under a new scheduling philosophy but adds, "We want to be smarter."

Future Aggie schedules will include one guarantee game, one FCS (formerly Division I-AA) game at home, a game with either Utah or BYU and a game against a regional FBS school.

This year the Aggies will play at Texas A&M, next year at Oklahoma and in 2011 at Auburn. The latter game will be at the market rate of $950,000, nearly double the Oklahoma guarantee, a big addition to the USU budget.

BYU has the largest athletic budget in the state at just over $30 million, but it also has the most sponsored intercollegiate sports with 21.

Holmoe said he hasn't had to cut any programs or people, although the athletic department is participating in a campuswide hiring freeze. He's grateful for recent surpluses, which will help subsidize the program during the tough times.

"Instead of telling each team you can do that and can't do that, we're asking them to voluntarily reduce their budgets in the best way they can," he said. "And we've had very good response."

The Cougars rely a lot on revenue from their nearly always sold-out 65,000-seat football stadium and from generous boosters. But in a down economy, they can't always rely on that money.

"Private donations and ticket sales are a such a big part of our revenue, and so far ticket sales are going very well," Holmoe said. "If it wasn't for this economy, we would probably continue to raise ticket prices, but we froze our ticket sales this year for football in an effort to show understanding to our fans."

Recent "up" years have given BYU a nice rainy-day fund, which is helping this year.

"We're spending some of the reserves, but hopefully not all of it," Holmoe said. "Time will tell. We've projected to have a small surplus. If our coaches and administrators keep to the budget level and we are able to prognosticate what our revenue will be, then we'll be in good shape."

Holmoe said because of the tough times, plans for some facilities have been delayed.

"We have some real nice plans for the future that are put on hold for the time being," he said. "For instance, we don't know when we'll get to the next phase for our soccer stadium. We'll continue planning, but they won't come to fruition for a while."

Of all the in-state schools, Weber State is the only one that has actually had to lay off staff in recent months, including one in marketing. Jerry Graybeal, who has been athletic director for nearly four years, said his school tries to find ways to save money without jeopardizing the experience of the student-athletes or handcuffing the coaches.

One of the main things Weber has looked at is travel costs.

"We've tried to look at streamlining our costs for travel," said Graybeal. "That's a big one. Everyone got hit last year with the explosion of oil prices. It's expensive to travel regardless, but when possible we try to substitute a bus trip for a plane ride."

For example, the Weber State football team will take four bus trips this year and just two plane trips. In the past, the Wildcats have usually bused up to Montana or Montana State and always to Pocatello and flown elsewhere.

This year, besides busing to Missoula, the Wildcats will get quite familiar with I-80, with bus trips for games at Wyoming, Colorado State and Northern Colorado.

"This year we'll only have two flights, Portland State and Eastern Washington, and that will help us," Graybeal said. "We already pretty much travel bare bones anyway."

Graybeal said his department has even considered not ordering new uniforms and looked at all costs associated with game management.

"We ask, 'Does this create a burden for the student-athletes?' " he said. "We try to avoid that at all possible. Internally, our challenge is to provide the same service with fewer people."

Southern Utah has saved money by consolidating some positions within the athletic department.

Athletic director Ken Beazer said the school's compliance person also picked up academics and the employee over fundraising and a booster club also picked up corporate sponsorships and marketing. He even used a student intern to actually take over game management.

"She sat at the table and called the games," he said. "She didn't get paid, but she's leaving with a degree and experience, which will help her walk right into a job."

Beazer said more than 90 percent of his budget goes to three areas — salaries, scholarships and travel — with each accounting for about a third of the total.

"We don't have much fat to trim," he said.

SUU has an exorbitant travel budget being in the Summit Conference, which consists of schools mostly in the Midwest. So not only must the T-Birds bus a few hours to Las Vegas to catch a flight, they often have connecting flights plus more bus rides to places like Moline, Ill., or Fargo, N.D.

"The party line I've been using," said Beazer, "is this: We're very happy with the conference and the relationships, but we would like something to make more sense geographically."

Utah Valley has only been a university for four years and will be joining the Great West Conference next year after being an independent for several years.

Athletic director Mike Jacobsen said UVU is mandated to break even with its $6.5 million budget but has had to take some "pretty significant budget cuts this year" to do that.

"We didn't re-hire at a couple of positions, so we're going to be OK," Jacobsen said. "We eliminated most all of administrative travel and we changed the way we travel a little bit. We watch the way we eat, make sure we're not paying any extra fees on baggage and maybe put two in a room instead of one. We're just being a little more frugal."

Even though UVU is joining a conference, it won't help its travel budget since it has been playing most of the same teams already.

"It's not going to change much," Jacobsen said. "We're still going to the East and Midwest — our regional schools won't play us. It forces us to make long trips. Sometimes we've played a single game, so we're going to pick up another game when we make a big-time trip. It's the smart, economic thing to do."

Utah Valley has the highest fees for students in the state, but according to Jacobsen, there are few complaints from the students.

"They love it," he said. "They love our athletic program."

So what does the future hold for the Beehive State's athletic programs?

While there are a lot of worries among the athletic directors, there's still an overall feeling of optimism.

"Next year is really going to be a tremendous financial challenge," said Hill. "On the income side we're lacking a money game like we had with Michigan and we're not raising ticket prices. We're projecting our contributions to be flat and costs continue to go up. We're looking to have a very rough next year and using most of our reserve fund, just to balance."

"The big challenge that remains to be seen is revenue," said Holmoe. "There are a few things we've planned for that we think are very important so certain areas of our budget we have increased and certain areas we've backed down. We don't have a huge fear, but we're going into it carefully. We don't want to shut down anything. We want to do the things that will not cause us to fall back."

Weber State is happy to be getting nearly a half-million dollars for its two games at Wyoming and Colorado State this fall that will help the future budget.

"It's a tough schedule, but they're both games we can bring a good portion of the money back and hopefully pay it forward for years to come," said Graybeal.

Beazer said, "I fully anticipate it to be more difficult for us because we're bringing volleyball on line. We've pushed our programs so far, adding women's golf two years ago and increased scholarships for most of our sports. We've been pushing and pushing; I just hope we haven't outrun our supply line. Any more unforeseen expenses could really force some tough decisions."

"I know expenses are going to go up next year, but our budget will be pretty much the same, so we'll have to make it work within that same realm," said Jacobsen. "We hope we don't get in a situation where we have to make bigger cuts than we have to this point, but right now we're going to be OK and make some adjustments with what we do have."

If any school has reason to worry, it's Utah State, but Barnes is staying upbeat about the future.

"Even given the economic challenges, we've got tremendous momentum in our program and the light at the end of the tunnel with student fees and self-generated revenue is up substantially," he said. "I view this as a short time period of tremendous challenge. We've just got to be strong and vigilant in executing our plan and we'll get through it."