Saturday, January 24, 2009

Financial solutions for college athletic budgets: Part 2 - Conference and national options


On the heels of an article about Stanford's potential staff reductions and/or elimination of teams, ultimatesportsinsider.com listed numerous things college athletic programs can consider to reduce spending during these difficult economic times. The challenge with many of these suggestions is the concern that they will reduce competitiveness or imply a reduced commitment to athletics. This concern is the driving force behind part two of the series - conference and NCAA level changes to reduce costs through collective action while maintaining a level playing field as budgets decline. These changes are harder to achieve because they will require leadership beyond the institution and will be subject to political jockeying and self interest stances. In the national spirit of hopefulness, suggestions include:


  • Limit permissible recruiting dates - Recruiting is the lifeblood of all college athletic programs, and having sufficient opportunities to recruit is important. But the number of days available for off campus contacts and evaluations is excessive in many sports when one considers that many recruiting opportunities occur in tryout or tournament settings where literally hundreds of athletes are seen at one time. Dana O'Neil's column following the tragic death of Wake Forest Basketball Coach Skip Prosser added additional rationale beyond budget implications. Further, the absolute explosion of video, scouting services, Internet information and other resources makes these calendars, which have evolved very little over the years increasingly archaic relative to how recruiting used to occur 20 or 30 years ago when technology wasn't as readily available. The madness is replicated in all sports - because the day you aren't out there, someone is stealing your bacon. Rational recruiting calendars are needed in many sports.


  • Reduce or eliminate out of season competition - Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley called out the currently permissible practice of allowing teams to travel around the country for out of season competition. Staffing, officials, travel, and meals all add significant budgetary pressure for games that are meaningless.


  • Reduce out of season practice opportunities - “Do we really need to have a nontraditional season?” Mr. Curley said in an interview. “We’ve got kids going 365 days a year. Maybe this is an opportunity to give them a little down time.” This suggestion and the one above might get some traction coming from a Big Ten Conference athletic director.

  • Scale back or eliminate post season conference tournaments - Perhaps its a reflection of my current Ivy League environment, which offers fewer post season tournaments than the national norm, but does every sport need a conference tournament? Should a conference that has historically only had their automatic qualifier participate in the NCAA's risk not sending their regular season champion and best representative to post-season play? If the conference permits all teams to participate in a post-season tournament, what's the point of the regular season besides determining seeding? In some cases, there may be an economic incentive (the Big East Men's Basketball Tournament for example). But most of these events have significant expense and insignificant revenue.

  • Take conference-wide collective action on shared areas of expense - Part one in this series made numerous suggestions related to media guides, staff sizes, travel party sizes and practice and competitive start dates. Leadership at the conference and NCAA levels can reduce expenses for member institutions while maintaining competitive balance.


  • Doubleheaders in baseball and softball - Baseball and softball each have schedules and traditions that can easily accommodate doubleheaders to decrease the number of dates of competition and therefore the associated travel costs. Let's play two!


  • Do a cost/benefit analysis of environmental resource usage - Two examples come to mind - using stadium lights during broad daylight for television broadcasts and the current practice by many field hockey programs of watering AstroTurf fields . The water and energy aren't free and these are hard to defend environmentally. The analysis can determine if the use is truly necessary.

  • Move starting and championship dates to make seasons more traditional - Hockey, a winter sport, played its first regular season game on October 10. The two teams in the championship game at Frozen Four will conclude their season on April 11 - a six month span that is nearly seven months when exhibition play in SEPTEMBER is included in the equation. Football,volleyball, soccer, field hockey largely begin practice during the first week of August. Lacrosse, baseball, softball, tennis, golf and the rest of the spring sports start practice in early January and competition in early February. We all love sports, but the continued expansion of season length is expensive.


  • Officiating costs - Conferences are competing to get the best officials for their games through differential wages. The result is increased officiating costs every year. Further, officiating crews are expanding. Men's and women's hockey just added a fourth official. Men's basketball has used three officials for years. Baseball umpiring crews continue to expand. Video replay is becoming an expectation in many sports. These costs add up quickly.


  • Permit technology in recruiting - While initial entry costs for technology can be high, these costs decline quickly as the technology becomes more commonplace (compare cost and quality of the first flat screen TVs, cell phones, computers, etc. with what we are using today). Conferences and the NCAA need to aggressively pursue technology solutions as they emerge rather than regulating them out of fear over technology distorting competitive balance. Technology has the potential to be a cost effective competitive equalizer.

  • Review conference travel squad limits - Significant savings might be found here. For example, reducing the travel squad in basketball from 14 to 13 could save nearly the financial equivalent (depending on flight needs, meals, hotel rooming arrangements, etc.) of playing one less road game if the team plays 14 road games in a season. Indeed every sport could experience similar savings by examining the actual participation rates in games over the previous two or three seasons to determine how many of the individuals on the sideline actually participate. While some will argue that leaving athletes home harms the student athlete experience, this diminished experience is far preferable to cutting a team and eliminating the experience completely.

While these ideas will not be popular with everyone, actions of last resort such as staffing cuts or eliminating teams will become more likely in a worsening economy if there is no willingness to share the burdens of the current economic environment. I encourage you to comment and provide additional ideas through this forum as well as to conference commissioners and in the NCAA legislative process.


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