During a wide-ranging retirement interview with Boise State President Bob Kustra last week, we asked whether he had any projects he wanted to complete before he retires on June 30, 2018.
“Well, baseball,” he said.
And that should explain the eye-raising pace with which Boise State has tried to make the switch from wrestling, canceled last spring, to baseball, which could have a coach by the end of this week and should begin play in the spring of 2020.
It’s Kustra’s last big gamble at Boise State — one that could elevate the profile of Broncos athletics but also could put another dent in a budget that has been taking hits from many directions in recent years. Mountain West rival Nevada, for example, lost $914,327 on baseball in fiscal 2016, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.
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Kustra said he was “besieged” by baseball supporters during his 14 years as president with questions about why the Broncos don’t play the sport.
“While I know there are many wrestling advocates out there, they can’t compete with America’s national pastime,” he said. “... It was just the next logical extension of our partnership with the Mountain West.”
Kustra never was shy about his belief that investing in athletics would fuel growth across the university. He has made many bold decisions that have paid off — including $82.5 million in football-related facilities upgrades; repeated contract improvements that kept football coach Chris Petersen on board for eight years when most schools this size would have lost him in three or less; and the Mountain West-Big East-Mountain West dance that landed the Broncos an advantageous football TV deal without stalling the momentum built by the rest of the athletic department, which could have been relegated to the Big West.
But none of those seemed quite as risky as what he’s done this time.
Boise State will spend about $1 million per year on baseball. It will need to invest up to $1 million more per year into women’s athletics to avoid problems complying with Title IX, the federal gender-equity law (a positive from this move, but an expensive one).
That’s far more than the Broncos were spending on a once-proud wrestling program that had fallen into disrepair. That program’s budget was $488,000.
The Broncos also plan to build an on-campus baseball field, cost to be determined.
All this comes at a time when Athletic Director Curt Apsey is trying to find ways to replace disappearing revenue. Football ticket revenue dropped 10 percent from 2012 to 2016 (about a $760,000 decline) while average attendance was the lowest this year since 2007, the last season before the Stueckle Sky Center expansion. Gross royalties from licensed products plummeted 43 percent from 2011-12 to 2016-17 (about a $580,000 decline, before commission). There are concerns about the value of the Mountain West’s next TV deal. And Congress is trying to assess new taxes on athletic departments that could affect fundraising and royalties.
Kustra himself cited the declining football revenue as a consideration in terminating the wrestling program in an April email to legislators.
Yet, the president has found ways to keep baseball racing toward a potential 2020 opening day.
The school announced its decision to drop wrestling and pursue baseball on April 18. It unveiled designs for baseball uniforms on May 24 amid pressure from the wrestling community to reconsider the original decision. The school told the Idaho Statesman on Sept. 5 — the same day it announced the coaching search had started — that it planned to fund baseball and the women’s sports upgrades in part by reducing a $1.5 million administrative fee the athletic department pays to the university for its indirect support.
Apsey later added that “one significant gift” would help with scholarship costs for the first four to five years. Then on Oct. 26, Kustra withdrew from the plans for a Downtown Boise baseball/soccer stadium proposed through a public-private partnership. He revealed during our interview last week the location for an on-campus version north of the Beacon-Grant intersection. The Broncos will control that field at a cost Kustra says won’t be a burden. Construction could start this spring.
It’s part of a pattern for Kustra, who is known for busting through red tape during his tenure.
“It’s pretty apparent that he pushes the envelope,” Apsey said while discussing Kustra’s retirement and legacy. “I don’t think it’s just about athletics. When he makes his mind up and he thinks something is important for the institution, he’s going to do everything he can to make sure it gets done.”
Kustra’s interest in baseball includes his own status as a baseball fan. He sat beside a framed Chicago Cubs jersey during our interview. There was a baseball bat on the other side of his office.
But he also sees baseball as a natural fit in the Treasure Valley, where high school baseball is popular; in a state without a Division I baseball program; and in a city that has supported the Boise Hawks for decades. And the sport is a better fit than wrestling in the Mountain West, which fielded seven baseball teams last spring and doesn’t sponsor wrestling.
Baseball — a sport the Broncos dropped in 1980 for gender-equity reasons — also gives the university a chance to grab the community’s attention during the lull between the end of basketball season in March and the start of football practice in August.
“I’m feeling very good about the support I’ve already heard and felt from the community since the minute we made the decision,” Kustra said.
Still, this isn’t a sport that can have the financial or cultural impact of football or men’s basketball. Even the most dream-like of seasons won’t resonate much outside of Boise. And it’s almost certainly going to be a money-losing operation, year after year.
Boise State, which interviewed four coaches, included fundraising in the job description. The median loss on baseball among Football Bowl Subdivision schools was $926,000 in fiscal 2015, according to the NCAA.
“I’m convinced that with the right baseball coach in place, that baseball coach can raise the funding so that the program is not a deficit on the athletic budget the way some of our Olympic sports are,” Kustra said. “There’s no question that football and men’s basketball carry some of our other sports, our Olympic sports. I don’t think that will be the case with baseball.”
That pie-in-the-sky statement, more than anything, makes you wonder whether Kustra’s desire to have a baseball program has colored his perception of what it will cost.
But there’s no turning back now, not with the outgoing president working to put all the pieces in place before he leaves.
Expect to see Kustra, two years retired, standing on the mound of his very own field of dreams, throwing the ceremonial first pitch of the 2020 season.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.