Archive for the NCAA/College Category

Even more audio: WNYC’s The Takeaway – UConn streak broken

Posted in NCAA/College with tags , , , , , on January 6, 2011 by Helen

Link: Stanford Breaks UConn winning streak at 90

More Audio: Talking the UConn Streak – 88 on The Takeaway

Posted in NCAA/College with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2010 by Helen

Listen:

The Huskies, the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team, tied UCLA’s men’s basketball record of 88 consecutive wins on Sunday when they defeated Ohio State at Madison Square Garden. Helen Wheelock is a huge Huskies fan; she was at Sunday’s game and can’t wait for them to go for number 89, and sole possession of the record, tonight against Florida State.

Mapping the journey to 96 teams: Turning roadblocks into a roadmap?

Posted in NCAA/College with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2010 by Helen

The news that the Division I men’s tournament was considering expanding to 96 teams provoked a storm of reaction from fans, coaches, administrators and media. One natural byproduct was the question, “Should the women’s tournament expand to 96 also?”

For many in the women’s basketball community, recalled WBCA CEO Beth Bass, the first response was immediate and visceral. “If you were to ask me, ‘Are we ready for expansion on the women’s side?” said Bass, “I’d immediately say, ‘No, I don’t think our product is there right now.’”

But now that people have had some time to sit with the question, they’re finding that simply asking it has provoked some thoughtful and unexpected discussions.

“There’s a lot to think about,” said Dr. Marilyn McNeil, vice president/director of athletics at Monmouth University and chair of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Committee during the 2010-11 academic year. “I believe the first question is equity. If the men expand to 96 [or 68, as they now have], you’re giving these opportunities to men, and yet you’re not giving them to women.”

“I think the message I’m sending to my President is that women’s basketball is not as important as men’s. And that’s the last thing I want to do.”

That specific concern is why Patriot League Executive Director Carolyn Schlie Femovich believes it’s essential the conversations continue. “We as an Association are committed to equitable participation opportunities in championships for men and women. Right now, women are at 51% and men at 49%.” Because the men have committed to expand – and especially since a future move to 96 teams hasn’t been ruled out – there likely will be a need to create additional opportunities for women. “The real crux of the issue is,” explained Femovich, “should those all go into women’s basketball, and is that good for the game of women’s basketball?”

“The logical response would be, well, 96 for men, 96 for women. But part of what we’re trying to do in a very responsible way as Membership – and that’s through the WBCA and the Women’s Basketball Championship Committee and the Issues Committee, and even in some very directed conversations among some Commissioners  – is to say, ‘What is really in the best interest of women’s basketball? Not just with expansion, but what is the business model as we look ahead for 10 years? What would we like to see happen and what are the kinds of things we might need to implement to continue to see the game grow and develop?”

Triple Crown Sports, who manages the WNIT, is listening to all these discussions quite intently, especially since this season marked the expansion of their post-season tournament. “The reason we went to 64,” explained WNIT Director Renee Carlson, “was that in the past couple of years, we’ve left out more and more good quality teams that we thought should be playing in the post-season. If the NCAA expands to 96, the first question, at least from our point of view, becomes do we stay at 64 or do we downsize to 32?”

The reality, though, is that the additional 32 the NCAA team would most likely be those who are the financial bread-and-butter of the WNIT. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room when it comes to sustaining women’s basketball financially,” admitted Carlson. “So if those teams are not available, we might have to contract more. So now, suddenly, the opportunities for women’s basketball have decreased.”

Reaching this year’s WNIT finals has given Miami coach Katie Meier an interesting perspective on the expansion discussions. “I understand both sides of the story,” said Meier. “If 96 is going to be out there, then yes, I’m going to want one of those slots. But, at the same time, how many one-and-dones does that make?” she wondered. “We won five games in March and that’s never been done in Miami before.” During the tournament, Meier saw her team raise their shooting, rebounding and scoring percentages across the board. “To me that was a big deal. We brought our A-game in the post-season, and it lasted for a month. That was something we’re really going to build off of.”

Hosting three home games also allowed the Hurricanes to connect with alumni and build fan support, something that has become a trademark of recent WNIT tournaments. “Every year,” noted Carlson, “we have teams who go in and have their program’s best attendance ever. This year Illinois State was poised to sell out for a championship. Even not making it, you see them say, administratively, ‘Okay, we understand what we need to do to move forward with this – to capture this.’”

“Of course, the ultimate goal is to be in the NCAA,” said Meier, “but then maybe you don’t win any games in March. Now (with the WNIT) there are four teams that are playing six games in March. That’s a good thing to experience. But, at the same time, for the player’s WNBA resumes, for the coaching resumes, for everything else, it’s more prestigious to have NCAA appearances.”

That may be true but, suggested an administrator, “Be careful what your coaches want.” The current system allows a coach leeway due to, say, youth, transfers or injuries. With expansion, if a coach-on-the-edge is somehow not one of the 96, “They are going to definitely lose their job, even if they did have a couple of ACLs.”

Any talk of future expansion is tied to the current decisions that must be made to address the often conflicting issues of hosting, attendance and expanding the fan base for the existing tournament. For example, noted Sue Donohoe, Vice President of Division I Women’s Basketball, “When you talk about the format of the first and second rounds, some coaches’ take will be, ‘I think it should be the top 16 seeds as sites for the first and second rounds.’ Then there are others that ask, ‘If we’re at the top 16 sites, how does that grow the game?’ because year in and out, you’re returning to the same sites and hosts. Then,” Donohoe added, “you have to balance the whole ‘what’s good for the growth of the game’ with financial implications.”

“The message I drive home,” said Femovich, “is don’t necessarily model everything we do in women’s basketball after the men. That doesn’t mean we don’t want to have great competitive opportunities for women, and that the coaches shouldn’t get paid well and all those things. What I’m saying is, think about what will help grow your game and your product.”

“We’ve had a number of different experiences in terms of tournament format,” Femovich continued, “which one is really working the best for the women? What has drawn the best crowds? What has given you the best game opportunities? What has created the most interesting games? What does it all mean for television?”

The television question is particularly thorny because, while the last contract with ESPN included commitment to televise all rounds of the women’s games, it’s led to game times that may not be conducive to crowds. So, asked Femovich, “What would you rather have: Playing on someone’s home court at 3 p.m. and having a great atmosphere or playing at 9:30 p.m. on a neutral court for both teams, but there’s nobody in the stands? And what does that say to the audience or to your television partner?”

“I would ask coaches to really try to think about the game in the big picture. If you step out of your institutional hat and just put on your hat as a women’s basketball coach, what would you wish for the game? What could really make the game better? We are continuing to grow and evolve, but it might require that people agree to make some compromises — compromise for the good of the whole.”

Over the last few weeks, Bass has listened as people have moved the discussion from, “Why expansion doesn’t work,” to “Why it might work.” For her, it’s clear what the next steps are: “Let’s get all the stakeholders together and say, ‘Maybe not now, but we need to be poised and ready. What’s our plan?” said Bass. “Let’s not be caught down the road going, ‘Wow, we should have thought about that!’ Let’s get ourselves in position. That’s what athletics is all about.”

McNeil recognizes that there are many reasons the time is not right for expanding the women’s tournament, but cautions against turning those reasons into excuses against pro-active action. “People say, ‘We’re just not ready,’” she reflected. “Well, first of all, I’m not sure when we’ll be ready. But, and I bring this up all the time, I don’t think Patsy Mink [author of the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act], said in 1972, ‘I don’t think we’re quite ready for it.’ She saw there was an inequitable situation and figured out how to at least begin to address it.”

“I don’t know who gets to throw down the gavel and say, ‘Okay, now we’re ready,’” continued McNeil, “but I think we need to be pushed to be ready.”

AUDIO: Dave Zirin of Edge of Sports, 4/9/10

Posted in NCAA/College with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2010 by Helen

Dave Zirin from Edge of Sports hunts me down in Texas – post the San Antonio Final Four – and we do a quick hit on the 2010  tourney and the next season of college ball. Audio link here.

CIVIL WARS: Keeping the Recruiting Battles Clean – January, 2010

Posted in Coaches, NCAA/College with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2010 by Helen

Last September, the WBCA sent out an email noting they’d been inundated by calls concerning violations during the July “quiet period.” It encouraged coaches to report possible violations to Elizabeth Ramsey, Assistant Director of Enforcement and Liaison for women’s basketball so that the NCAA could do the necessary fact-finding investigations.

“I think we all want the game to be as clean as it can possibly be,” said Sherri Coale, Oklahoma coach and past president of the WBCA. “What we’re trying to do is be as pro-active as possible because, like most things in life, it begins small and snowballs into larger and larger things and, before you know it, there are a lot of major infractions that are skewing the playing field.”

But asking coaches about the severity of recruiting violations or the prevalence of negative recruiting in women’s basketball can be a bit like trying to pin down a ghost: there are feelings, but not a lot of concrete evidence.

“A lot of things that we hear are either told to us by a scholastic or summer league coach,” explained Tulane head coach Lisa Stockton. “It’s basically hearsay, so it’s difficult to prove.”

“It’s a shame, but I think there are a lot of violations,” admitted Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. “A lot of people are concerned about the ethics in women’s basketball, but it seems like more and more people are cheating. I think the common perception is that they’re cheating because you can get away with it. And they’re getting away with it because nobody’s turning them in.”

“Some don’t want to say what’s going on,” agreed Kathleen Richey-Walton, WBCA board member and coach at Southwest Dekalb High School and with the AAU Georgia Metros. “When that takes place, then it’s sort of like, they SAID we can’t, but since no one else is really saying anything, it’s sort of like we can.”

“It’s our own fault,” added McGraw. “We’re sitting back and saying, ‘Oh, yeah, well nothing happens when somebody cheats.’ It’s up to us to be the ones who change that.”

CLEANLINESS BEGINS AT HOME

The first step a coach can take is to ensure their staff is totally engaged with their Compliance Office. “The way the NCAA enforcement program is set up,” said Chris Strobel, Director of Enforcement for secondary infractions, “each member institution has an affirmative obligation to monitor their athletics programs for compliance with NCAA rules and regulations and to self-report those violations when they’re discovered.” Over 95% of secondary infractions are self-reported, said Strobel.

“I flat out tell people that the enforcement staff and the Committee on Infractions (which handles major violations) really are more concerned about institutions that do not report ANY violations than they are about those that report several,” he explained. “The rule book is SO complicated, there are so many different scenarios out there, violations are probably happening. So, if you’re not reporting any, you’re either not catching them – which you’re supposed to be doing – or you’re not reporting them – which you are definitely supposed to be doing.”

SPEAKING ABOUT OTHERS
When it comes to addressing violations outside ones own institution, the WBCA is encouraging coaches to speak up – no matter if it’s a longtime friend or a distant acquaintance. “We don’t want to get into a situation where there is this discomfort with reporting violations,” said Coale. So, she tells her staff, “If you know of people who are doing that, don’t come back and complain to me. Tell me who it is and let’s go through the proper channels – proper channels being first and foremost, I notify the head coach. It can’t be hearsay. It can’t be, ‘I think.’ It has to be ‘I saw this,’ ‘I heard this,’ or ‘I was first person witness.’”

“In the few times in my career that we have observed any of that, I’ve called the head coach and it’s been taken care of immediately. Immediately.”

Even when the supporting evidence may be slim, said Stockton, taking action is always better than letting something fester or become fodder for the rumor mill. “I’ve been involved in something that I just couldn’t prove and we’ve still made calls to those schools. Of course, they couldn’t prove them either. But at least I felt like we informed the compliance people of those schools that there was something questionable in their program. At least we tried.”

DOES IT NEED TO BE FRONT PAGE NEWS?
Currently, while “public reprimand and censure” is a standard NCAA penalty for major violations, it is not a typical penalty for secondary violations. Strobel recognizes that this can lead to public misperceptions. “Some media article will come out reporting some sort of violation on an institution’s part, and then the rest of the world doesn’t hear anything more about it. So they assume, ‘Oh, the NCAA let them off,’ when that’s not true. We’ve processed it, we’ve penalized the institution, we’ve penalized the coach. It’s just not made public.”

The reason is that, along with privacy and legal concerns, secondary violations are considered inadvertent in nature and do not represent a significant competitive advantage. Not to mention, the sheer number of violations (3,916  reported in 2009) would make the public reporting process burdensome.

That being said, McGraw wonders how this “secrecy” impacts people’s willingness to speak up. “Even after you report something, you don’t know what happened. I think that’s the frustration of the coaches: ‘Well, I did turn her in. Nothing happened.’ I think if it was on the front page that this school was reported for these violations, the cheating would stop just a bit. Nobody wants to see their name on the front page for something like that.”

Ultimately, said Coale, “I think we as coaches have the responsibility to do our due diligence and then trust the NCAA to do their due diligence. There has to be that mutual respect or else it will continue to be a quagmire.”

TIP-TOE AROUND TEMPTATION

It’s impossible to ignore how the growth of the women’s basketball has influenced – at times adversely – the actions of coaches. “The support nationally of collegiate programs has changed people’s pressure to win,” acknowledged Stockton. “When you talk 15 years ago, coaches were fired, but not as they are now.” Additionally, she continued, “there’s more money in coach’s and assistant’s salaries. We have basketball operation people now. You used to have a Graduate Assistant. No one fought to get a GA position. No one cheated to get a GA position.”

“I think young coaches,” said Coale, “in particular those who are striving to climb the ladder, land that big recruit, and have that marquee name on their resume have to be real careful to not let the pressure of a particular situation guide their behavior. It’s all our responsibility, as ‘veterans’ of this profession, that they feel enough eyeballs and attention on their activity that the right decision is a little easier to make for them.”

Unfortunately, the decision is more challenging if an assistant finds their head coach turns a blind eye to that ethical line. As a former college coach, Richey-Walton’s understands the loyalty an assistant coach feels they owe their coach. “They’re the ones who got you started and, when you want to go to the next level, they’re going to be the ones doing the recommendations.” But she doesn’t expect an assistant to abdicate his or her own sense of what is right. She refers to the saying on the t-shirts her high school players wear: “Your character is determined by what you do when nobody is looking.”

“That’s the most important thing,” Richey-Walton stressed. “We’ve won a couple of championships at Southwest Academy and we can be proud of them because we know we didn’t have to cheat or cut corners to win. I don’t know how you can be proud of something that you know you didn’t do it the right way. Your career’s going to be over sooner than you realize, and when you look back on it, you want to be proud of what you did.”

CHOICES, DECISIONS AND CONSEQUENCES

One obvious reason for a coach not reporting violations or negative recruiting tactics is the fear of being blackballed. “It’s definitely a real issue out there for assistant coaches,” acknowledged Strobel, “especially the younger ones who are trying to make a name for themselves. I think that we’re actually seeing less of those types of cases. That’s not to say it’s still not out there, but with some of the cases we’ve had, the message that’s getting out there is that the Committee on Infractions understands the dilemma assistant coaches are in. But,” he added, “You’re sacrificing your career by being loyal to this individual who has violated the rules. So you need to really think about which what is more destructive to you in the long run.”

“We all have to make those decisions,” said Coale. “If they were easy we wouldn’t even be talking about it. It really doesn’t matter at the end of the day if someone is going to blackball you or some coach is going to view that as disloyal. What can YOU live with? What do YOU want to stand for? Those are personal decisions that people have to make and, for the good of our game, I think they are necessary decisions.”

“As a head coach,” Coale added, “I think it’s our responsibility to not promote people who don’t speak up. If doing it right enables you to advance, more people will do it right. It’s just like having a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes, the more comfortable you get in bringing those things to light.”

NCAA TOURNAMENT HOSTING: Hidden Hurdles and Helpful Hints (WBCA April, 2009)

Posted in NCAA/College with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2009 by Helen

As college basketball moves into its season of review and reflection, doubtless there will be many discussions about the 2009  Division I tournament and the logistics of seeding, the needs of hosting, the restrictions of television and the current economic reality.

But as the women’s game seeks to strike the balance between a competitively balanced tournament and a well-attended one, we would be remiss to not examine the successes and challenges faced by the host institutions themselves. What lessons were learned and how might they be applied to games and tournaments across the Divisions?

THE DEVIL IS IN THE (NCAA MANUAL) DETAILS

While it’s all well and good to have hosting guidelines and requirements laid out in a manual, it’s important to take steps to ensure it’ll be as a road map, not a doorstop. “We actually had a meeting in Indianapolis in August, where everyone was given the manual and they literally walked you through it over about a day and a half of meetings,” recalled Todd Stewart, Associate Athletic Director-Communications at Western Kentucky. From that point on there were periodic conference calls, emails and site visits by NCAA personnel. “There is a lot of communication and they do a tremendous job of making it very clear what you need to do, so nobody could really say, ‘Oh I really didn’t know we needed to do that,’ or, ‘I hadn’t heard that before.’”

It’s not just about “rules and specs,” but intent and purpose, commented Brandon Yopp, Assistant Media Relations Director at North Carolina State. “The big difference in an NCAA championship, from a hosting standpoint, is you have to understand how strongly the NCAA places the focus on the student athlete’s arrival at the arena. From the second they step on the property everything has to be to the letter of the way the NCAA would like it. And they want it equitable.”

“When you first host and you read through the manual you might say, ‘Well we don’t really need four locker room attendants, we can probably get away with two.’ Or, ‘We don’t need a greeter to escort them from the loading dock to the locker room, it’s 100 feet, what do they need that for?’ When you have it in place and you see how smoothly it works, you really find the value in that when you see the reaction of the student athletes.”

THIS IS NOT A SOLO ACT

The reality of hosting a tournament game is that the rest of the athletic programs don’t shut down nor does one’s staff suddenly increase exponentially. “It’s very challenging because again, to the NCAA’s credit, they run it as though you have the top two ranked men’s teams in the country at your place,” said Stewart. “It’s not based on who you have, or who you might have. We could have had North Carolina’s men playing the Connecticut men, and we could have done that here. That’s how sophisticated of a set up they require.”

For that reason, explained Stewart, “you really have to have a huge buy in of volunteers. You don’t have the money to pay 100 people to work for you. It’s just people who either take pride in the University or your community or both. They want to be involved, help out, and have it be a good impression for everybody.”

In Raleigh, said Yopp, “we’ve been fortunate in that we have a really active Convention and Visitors Bureau and they have been absolutely unbelievable. Their management has helped us form a Local Organizing Committee (LOC) that is actually separate of the Tournament Management Committee.” Members of the LOC include people with the Raleigh-Durham airport, Downtown Raleigh Alliance, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, N.C. State, as well as representatives from the Centennial Authority (which runs the RBC Center.) “It makes sense for all of these collective groups to commit resources to try make the championships a success. So, when sales don’t dictate that our budget will allow us to buy street banners downtown, the LOC finds a way to buy the banners. When we may not necessarily have the money to do a face painter or the exterior things — those outreach events in between sessions — the LOC will cover the band and the face painting and the things that we do to try and make it a more appealing event. That has just been a huge, huge factor in our success.”

He points to the Saturday games as an example. The BaylorLouisville game was first, followed by Maryland-Vanderbilt. “We had a pretty good crowd considering it was all out of market teams. Baylor had a good contingent there and then for the second game a lot of those fans stayed. It ended up being one of the best games that I’ve seen all year (Maryland’s furious comeback). The crowd obviously benefited from doing the things outside that kept them on site — the things that the LOC helped us to do helped to make that second crowd even better than the first.”

WHO’S COVERING THIS?

In the past, the number of credentialed media attending an event has often been used as a measure of its success. These days, slashed travel budgets that limit even those willing to travel cross-country have made that an invalid measurement. It’s also posed challenged for host-site media directors looking to encourage local coverage, especially if the host team hasn’t made the tournament. Yopp noted that one of the directors of the large local paper — the News and Observer — served on the local organizing committee. “We had no one local [playing, yet] we had two News and Observer writers cover the entire championship. While it is local news, there were a lot of other things going on in town, too. I have to believe that their involvement on the front end had something to do with that.”

“It’s always interesting to see, especially in these economic times, what we have to do to be able to take care of the folks that can’t make it,” said Judy Willson, Assistant Director of Media Relations at the University of New Mexico. Hosting Kansas State, Drexel (PA), Vanderbilt and Western Carolina meant that most team’s media outlets hired local writers to string for them. The time difference, combined with being scheduled as the late game by ESPN, meant a high-pressure push to meet deadlines. “We just roll and we do the best we can to accommodate no matter where the teams are from, whether its Eastern Time zone or Central Time zone.”

While Willson also had to deal with both Lobo teams being in the NIT, not to mention spring baseball and a ski team that had finished third in the Nationals, she took a pro-active approach to supporting coverage and attendance by identifying engaging NCAA storylines and getting that information out to local outlets. “When I saw we were getting Drexel I thought, ‘How cool is that — to get a team that has never been before. I don’t think it would have mattered where they got sent, it would be a great story. That was something that we could push. [With] Western Carolina coming in, having Kellie Jolly Harper as their coach was a storyline that people could get into and understand: here’s a three-time All-American under Pat Summitt and now she’s continuing the legacy bringing her team to the NCAA tournament.”

“I did two quick paragraphs on each of the four schools coming saying here is how they got here, here is who their coach is, here’s who their top players are and if you want more, here’s the link their website. I sent that out to our media and I put it on our website.”

California took it a step further. Though they served as a host, the Bears ended up traveling to play in Los Angeles and Trenton. So, they decided to create some self-generated coverage: “We did a blog,” said Herb Benenson, Assistant Athletic Director/Media Relations. “We weren’t blogging during the game, but it was about everything else that you couldn’t read in the newspaper — putting up pictures of the team on the bus, pictures from practice, or talking about where the team went for a team meal. In less than two weeks it had over 4500 hits. Obviously there were people that were following it, and it was a great way to get some news out.”

BALANCING RISK AND REWARD

The reality for any hosting institution is that there is an inherent financial risk. “We knew that,” said Jay Blackman, Director of Communications and Media Relations at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, “but because of two years of actually making a small profit on each [previous hosting], I guess we really didn’t fully understand the risk. We really thought we’d get Tennessee or the Lady Mocs (who didn’t make the tournament) or at least Vanderbilt. When we didn’t, it kind of set in that ‘Oh, oh, we could be in trouble here.’” That being said, he feels Chattanooga is definitely interested in putting in future hosting bids. “The experience was good. It’s a fun event. It’s an exciting event to see what teams you are getting. Those are the positives–just the excitement around it.”

The feelings are similar at Texas Tech, one of several sites whose host team wasn’t in the tournament. “I think we enjoyed it,” said Chris Cook, Assistant Athletic Director/Media Relations. “When I say, ‘I think’ I know I enjoyed it. And Texas Tech gets a lot of benefit out of it. We’re showcasing our arena and parts of the campus and our name is out there every time a game is shown.”

Also, noted Willson, hosting next year can be used as a source motivation: “It gives our fans and our team one more opportunity to battle and fight. I’m sure Coach Flannigan is putting that up on the board saying, ‘We’re not doing the N IT thing again!’”

AT THE HEART OF HOSTING

Come tournament time, there is much talk of the “championship atmosphere” as a direct correlation to attendance, but Texas Tech’s Cook is convinced there’s more to it than sold out arenas. “Your crowd can dictate that,” he acknowledged, “but I think when those kids are out on the court they hear their fans and they block out that there are empty sections in the stands. They get that there is that championship atmosphere, that they are in the NCAA tournament. Just the fact that they sit in front of a banner at a press conference or they step out onto a court that has the NCAA logos, they know what they are in a ‘championship atmosphere,’ regardless of or how many people may or may not be there. If you asked them today, ‘Are you disappointed?’ I don’t think you’d find one that said they were. I think they’re all very excited to be in the tournament and each round and each step you take I imagine it’s better and better.”

“The people that we have here that put this together,” he added, “I think they make that atmosphere. They give you that feeling by the way they treat [the student-athletes]. We didn’t take the attitude, ‘Well we’re not in it so were going to just go through the motions.’ We did it as if we had four Texas Tech’s in the event. We treated Baylor, a nemesis in the Big 12, like rock stars. And we did the same with South Dakota State, the ‘newbies.’”

“When a student-athlete can say, ‘Hey this season has culminated with this. These people are treating us great. They respect us,’ I think that’s where that feeling comes from — more than looking in the stands and seeing a lot of people. That’s where your championship atmosphere, your sense of belonging and your sense of accomplishment comes from.”

AN UNEXPECTED CHALLENGE: Making Choices for Fiscal Fitness – WBCA September, 2009

Posted in NCAA/College with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2009 by Helen

Reflecting on the economic upheavals of this past year Jim Isch, Chief Financial Officer of the NCAA, said, “I think a lot of us thought and were told the sports industry was recession proof. We’re finding out that it isn’t. It’s going to suffer the same impact as many other areas.”

This “re-visioning” has demanded painful budget decisions on national and local institutional levels – from reduced tournament fields, readjusted schedules and travel plans, to furloughs and the elimination of programs. “You hear athletic directors and coaches say it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do,” reflected Dr. Robert Corran, Athletic Director at Vermont where, in the face of a $1.1 million shortfall, the University discontinued their baseball and softball program. “Until you’ve done it, you don’t really appreciate that it really is. This is the exact opposite of what you do. What you do is provide opportunity and increase student-athletes’ opportunities. To be in the position where you’ve got to take opportunity away is almost the antithesis of who you are professionally.”

Though institutions may have different financial resources, all are being tested. Said Nancy Fahey, coach of Washington University (MO), of her colleagues and students: “They are not immune to what’s going on in the country. They understand it and know that we are making adjustments.”

Fortunately, there’s been an open line of communication between the coaches and administration. “What I like about it is that it’s a team effect,” she said. “It’s not like, as coaches, we’re feeling, ‘this is out of our control.’ I know that when somebody asks me about my budget, it’s very reasonable to say, ‘we are not going to take that extra trip,’ or ‘we’ll have to look at our travel size squad.” And, she added “to me, in the big scheme of what’s going on, I’m looking at this like we’re very fortunate. We have to remember that.”

Many athletic programs have used budget discussions to clarify and strengthen their goals and priorities. Faced with an attention grabbing 10% reduction ($338,000), Minnesota State-Mankato’s Athletic Director Kevin Buisman started with a survey. “We asked [coaches] to carefully evaluate everything they did from recruiting to travel to staffing to marketing to support services,” said Buisman. “They were always good stewards of the resources, but I think it’s the first time that they had to be really thoughtful about the budget. ‘Do I value scholarship support or staffing support more?’ That’s a hard question. I told them, ‘these aren’t easy times and there are going to be some difficult decisions. It should be challenging for you to sort that out.’”

“You can attack [deficits] either from the revenue or the expense side,” he explained. “Just cutting expenses is a lot less work. And it was going to be much more difficult to maintain the level of success we’ve enjoyed. So, we brainstormed on revenue generating possibilities: Were there some opportunities where we could invest — not cut, not maintain, but actually taking resources from one program, reinvest them in the others and create new revenues to support other programs? It was a little more balanced approach than to say, ‘let’s just cut these expenses and be done with it.’”

Anticipating cuts, Mark Massari, AD the University of California-Santa Barbara, said, “This is my philosophy: the entire department will have to tighten up. Women’s basketball, men’s basketball, swimming, marketing. Everything. There is a resolve that we have to have,” he explained, “that we are going to keep advancing our programs. Recession or not, there’s a cost to success. We’re going to be one of those schools that resolve to get past this year or two with that ‘let’s all pitch in together, take a piece off our budget and not cut anybody,’ attitude. At the end of the day, that will make us a better and stronger program.”

One of the conundrums facing schools is professional development. “It’s one of the easiest things to cut, yet it may be one of the most advantageous investments for a program,” acknowledged Corran. So, when Vermont was forced to eliminate funding, they created an in-house program. “We are asking each of our coaches, ‘what areas do you feel you have the most expertise in and will you share that with your colleagues?’ In some ways,” he reflected, “those kinds of professional development opportunities can be much more rewarding. You not only have people receiving good information, you’re doing a lot for the person presenting as well.”

Schools may have to rework their relationship with corporate sponsors. “In some areas, particularly at the Division II level and some of these smaller markets,” explained Buisman, “there was a blurring of the distinction between what was a marketing investment versus philanthropy — where they were just doing it to be a good community citizen. Were they getting a great value or return on their investment by having signage in our arena? The next time those [contracts] are up for renewal, you’re going to have to demonstrate that.”

Corran hopes future budgets avoid the “keeping up with the Joneses” syndrome. “It’s much more about understanding who your institution is, what is important to you and what is important to your student-athlete. It’s about becoming unique,” he explained. “If you really think that through, you’ve got a much better chance of not getting caught up in thinking, ‘they’re spending $5 million so we’ve got to spend $5 million.’ If you’ve got the right idea that costs $500, you’ll be a lot further ahead.”

Recognizing the challenges faced by its membership, the NCAA has taken several steps in order to provide relief. The most obvious action was the dues holiday for all three Divisions. Additionally, the Finance Committee set a target of $4 million budget reduction with a goal to distribute that savings to their institutions. After cuts in print jobs, overnight shipping, staff travel and the more instinctive use of video-conferencing, “I can tell you that we will not only meet our target,” said Isch, ”we’ll most likely exceed it.”

The NCAA has also asked all the Division I cabinets and committees to look at ways the Association’s rules and practices can be changed to save money on campus. “In September we’ll have a series of meetings in Indianapolis where we will gain greater clarity as to what they might be recommending. In October, the Division I board will take action on those recommendations.”

Equal care is being paid to the cost of running championships for all Divisions, said Joni Comstock, Senior Vice-President of Championships. But, as discussions target charter and domestic flights, luggage limits and driving distances, the guiding principals remain unchanged: “We cannot compromise the experience of the student-athlete and we cannot compromise their health or safety,” said Comstock.

Whatever the pressures, “we can’t forget about the 400,000 student-athletes who are living out a dream in our arenas and in the classroom. Ultimately, I have confidence in our membership – in coaches and administrators, that we’ll make changes and cuts that are fair. There will be reductions, but we will be able to preserve opportunities for all deserving men and women.”