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On Thursday, the university released a statement recommitting to D-I athletics, albeit with some significant caveats:
While Athletics will continue at UCR, we are making notable structural changes in response to its significant financial challenges. These changes range from permanent budget reductions, increasing revenue generation activities, and organizational restructuring to help ensure the program’s long-term viability.
Intercollegiate Athletics will integrate with the Student Affairs division, with Interim Athletics Director Wes Mallette now reporting to Brian Haynes, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. We anticipate that this organizational integration will help achieve operational efficiencies and fiscal savings, improve the fan experience, enhance recreational and club sports on campus, and deepen the connection between Athletics and current and future UCR students.
Beginning immediately, Intercollegiate Athletics will implement a three-year financial and operational plan to achieve substantial permanent budget reductions, increase externally generated revenue, and move toward financial stability.
The statement also said the department will explore a referendum to increase student fees for this coming academic year.
Increasing revenues, cutting costs and reaching financial stability might be a tall order, given where Riverside currently sits. Records requests for UC-Riverside's FRS budget reports have not been answered yet, but there's enough information out there to draw some very high level conclusions about the current level of external support for the athletic department.
Per the USA TODAY athletic department database, UC-Riverside's reported $23.2 million in athletic department revenue is actually a little above average in the Big West. But almost $19 million of that revenue is reported as 'School Funds', with another $2.2 million coming from student fees. That leaves only about $1.3 million in revenue from donations, ticket sales or licensing. By my math, every other Big West school earned over $2 million from those three sources, even schools with much smaller topline budgets, like Cal State Northridge.
Earlier this year, UC-Riverside's athletic director, Tamica Smith Jones, left to take a job at Kennesaw State (after also interviewing for the AD job at Illinois State). As of right now, the school is still operating with an interim athletic director.
There's some potential for growth. After mostly languishing since joining D-I, the Highlander men's basketball team has finished above .500 two seasons in a row, and their 14-8 record last season was their best finish yet. Given their geography, there has to be potential to grow sponsorship and licensing revenues. Growing the department and sustaining success while cutting budgets may be possible, but it's going to be very challenging. The school is going to need to nail multiple internal hires, be willing to be very creative, and also hope they get a bit lucky
What's interesting to me is that on paper, UC-Riverside would have been a good candidate to simply decide that all of this wasn't worth it.
Southern California is an expensive place to hire and retain talent. Another program, Cal Baptist, arguably one that's better funded and has more fan support, sits just ten miles away, to say nothing of the gazillion other entertainment competitors in Southern California. Unlike many tuition-dependent private schools in D-I, UC-Riverside doesn't need sports to recruit students. Enrollment is over 20,000.
What's more, there's good reason to think that the school will need to spend a lot more money to better serve the students it already has. From a recent LA Times story:
Many Riverside facilities are in deep disrepair. Students have endured falling ceiling tiles, leaking roofs, antiquated air systems that emit mold and lab equipment breakdowns. Staff morale has been low and turnover high. Faculty research has been compromised by dysfunctional facilities and airborne contamination.
Seems to fit the profile of a school that could get out of the D-I ratrace, no? Yet despite all of those headwinds, the school decided to at least try and stick around.
Which makes Hartford's decision, which came out that very same day, even more notable
Late Thursday evening, the University of Hartford released a statement indicating that they intend to transition their athletic department to the D-III level.
The transition will take a minute. UHart won't be able to formally ask the NCAA to reclassify until January of 2022, with the intention of becoming a full D-III participant by 2025.
Somewhat surprisingly, UHart doesn't seem to know what D-III league they'll be joining. That's significant, because not every potential D-III league sponsors every single sport UHart currently sponsors. The CCC, for example, does not sponsor men's track and field or women's golf. The Little East (who, as an public school league, would be no automatic lock to take Hartford anyway), doesn't sponsor women's golf, and neither does the NEWMAC (who also might not decide to take Hartford). None of these conference sponsor esports either, which is a bigger deal than you might think.
In fact, right up on the official FAQ, it reads:
Q: Will we keep all of our current athletic teams if we become D-III?
A: The move to DIII is a multi-year process that will include a comprehensive strategic planning process that will address all aspects of the Hawks athletics program, including individual teams.
If you're a freshman athlete at UHart, trying to figure out your future, I don't think that's an especially satisfying answer.
So even after outcry on campus and from local media, and even though it doesn't have enough information to help their current athletes reliably plan their future, they're going to continue with this strategy.
Why? Well, apparently not because of money
According to the feasibility study the school asked CarrSports to complete, a reclassification to D-III would save UHart over $9 million a year in athletics spending. For a school facing very challenging financial headwinds, that would be an attractive proposal.
But economist Andy Schwarz of OSKR, at the behest of the "Friends of the Neighborhood", examined the study and came to a very different conclusion. Schwarz believes that Carr double-counted any savings from reducing athletic aid, which substantially warped the analysis. The Carr report also failed to consider the exit fees UHart would owe the America East Conference, the D-III application fees, the costs of buying out existing coach contracts, and the loss of potential sponsorship and donation revenue, including a potentially significant athletic trainer/strength coach subsidy.
All in all, Schwarz projects that any savings in a move to D-III would not be realized for several years, and would likely project to be much more modest than $9 million a year.
I reached out to CarrSports for comment, but did not receive a response.
UHart sidesteps the accuracy of their feasibility study by simply claiming:
The decision to move to DIII intercollegiate athletics is to align the University’s mission and goals to their athletic offerings. For that reason, this decision isn’t based in savings and instead is focused on opportunities for more athletic and wellness opportunities for all students
Which, okay, maybe that's true, but if that was the case, why do the study at all? And if you DO care about the study, and if that data informed their thinking, shouldn't the school respond to claims that the data was inaccurate?
Did UHart make a mistake? Yes and no.
A lot of people, from my readers to local TV in Connecticut to folks on social media, have asked if I think UHart is making a mistake by reclassifying to D-I. I think that's a tough question to answer.
I personally believe the final result here is certainly defensible. Yes, UHart's men's basketball team went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time this season, and yes, that represents a significant marketing and program building opportunity. But if we're being honest, it was also a teensy bit of a fluke (UHart was third in the America East in KenPom rankings and fourth in the actual standings). In 37 years at the D-I level, UHart has never won a regular season conference championship, and the school has mostly been near the bottom of the Commissioner's Cup all-sports standings in the America East.
If a school looks at that athletic department and determines that they need to cut athletic spending no matter what, well, deciding that you simply can't keep up with the other public schools in the America East doesn't seem irrational to me. If you want your athletic department to provide Flutie Effect benefits, you have to win, and pretty regularly. I think you could credibly argue that just wasn't likely without either more money or a different classification.
UHart is in a tough spot. This is a bad time to be a non-elite private school in New England. Enrollment is down, competition for local students is fierce, and resources across campus are scarce. I think it is possible to argue that athletics, as currently structured, doesn't allow the school to follow their new strategic priorities.
So maybe the final decision wasn't wrong. Did the school use a good process to arrive at this point? I don't think so.
Was it wise to announce this decision without giving coaches enough information to support their athletes? No. Was it wise to commission a study in the middle of the winter sports season, fail to defend the study, and allow your school to be put in the embarrassing position of having to defend a reclassification right after your men's team makes the NCAA Tournament? No. Was it wise to announce a decision without more clarity on the future direction of the athletic department at the D-III level? No.
To me, this episode reads as if the school president and trustees decided on a course of action, and sought data to reinforce that decision, rather than allowing themselves to be data and student driven.
And if that's how they decide to make a decision that is this important, it doesn't bode well for current leadership's ability to figure out how to address the school's bigger problems with enrollment and retention.
I think both cases demonstrate how hard it is for a school to get out of D-I sports
It might be tempting to look at UHart's decision and speculate if other schools might make a similar decision. After all, Hartford isn't the only private school bleeding students and tuition dollars in D-I. In fact, there are plenty of other schools in worse financial shape.
I think that'd be the wrong takeaway. Riverside, a school with every reason to get out of D-I sports, decided to remain. Hartford faced significant pushback from local media, national media and campus voices, and might not have been able to pull this off had the school not been able to operate without some of the openness required of a public school.
I know that reclassification is at least being whispered about on other D-I campuses. The Overton Window has shifted enough for more schools to at least consider the possibility. But the forces that keep schools in D-I are strong. Inertia is strong. The desire to avoid being screamed at in the newspapers and on Twitter is strong. The desire to engage with alumni and potential boosters is strong. And if Hartford's reclassification becomes even more tumultuous, I imagine administrators at similar schools are going to decide that it simply isn't worth the fight. It's easier to axe the Theatre Department anyway.
I believe there are schools currently in D-I that would probably be better off at different classification levels. But making that change is a huge decision, one that warrants careful consideration and a very deliberate process. It's a decision that's worth doing right.
We'll see if UC-Riverside and Hartford made the right one.
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