Idaho Vandals

U of I tries to save 3 sports with change in way state accounts for athletics spending

The Idaho women’s soccer team learned this week that its program could be cut if the State Board of Education doesn’t grant the school some financial flexibility.
The Idaho women’s soccer team learned this week that its program could be cut if the State Board of Education doesn’t grant the school some financial flexibility. Courtesy of U of I

The University of Idaho would like to add sports but might be forced to cut up to three existing sports immediately as it tries to deal with a budget deficit for the second straight year. Which route the Vandals go could be determined at a State Board of Education meeting in two weeks.

[View the Idaho proposal here]

Idaho will ask the State Board at its April 18-19 meeting in Moscow for additional time in dealing with athletics deficits. The State Board gives universities two years to erase those deficits if a waiver isn’t granted.

Idaho presented two plans Friday at a State Board committee meeting in Boise: Change the way athletics expenses and revenue are calculated to recognize the student revenue the department brings to campus, or slash expenses by eliminating sports.

If the waiver is not granted, the school must act quickly to eliminate the deficit.

“Your only strategy is cost reduction, and I’d have to cut costs as fast as I can,” Idaho President Chuck Staben said.

That likely would involve cutting three sports: women’s soccer, men’s golf, and women’s swimming and diving, Staben said. Those are the three sports Idaho has that are not required by the Big Sky Conference, the Vandals’ athletics home. Sand volleyball and women’s triathlon likely would be added for Idaho to remain Title IX compliant and get back above the Football Championship Subdivision minimum of 14 sports. Idaho asked the Big Sky for a waiver from its sports requirements but that was denied in March, the university said.

“If we don’t act, we’re just going to continue to have deficits, and there’s no way I can bring us back into balance,” Staben said.

However, if the waiver is granted, Staben will pursue a change in State Board policy that would transform the way athletics revenue and expenses are calculated. The board currently places strict caps on institutional spending on athletics and doesn’t consider the revenue produced for the university by nonscholarship athletes. Those athletes pay tuition and fees, buy books, and spend money on room and board.

That process likely would take months, but the Vandals’ plan, developed by Athletic Director Rob Spear and refined by Staben and others, includes the potential additions of three limited-scholarship sports: men’s swimming, women’s triathlon and co-ed rifle. Those would be inexpensive to add and wouldn’t use athletics scholarships. Instead, athletes could get academic scholarships and would receive out-of-state tuition waivers. Staben estimates those three sports would cost about $115,000 annually combined and bring in approximately $1.1 million in revenue for the university.

“We could have some leisure to examine whether or not we wish to add some other sports, and I think there is rationale for doing that,” Staben said.

The three teams that are at risk of being cut were informed this week. Staben said he was surprised at the lack of communication with the teams, that “they have had little discussion with athletics.”

Spear was placed on administrative leave Tuesday while the university investigates the department’s handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints.

Adding three teams would bring in more revenue for the athletics program through the NCAA and increase enrollment. Women’s swimming likely would transition to the academic scholarship model, and the roster size would increase from 32 to 38. The NCAA considers out-of-state tuition waivers as partial scholarships.

“What I’m proposing in those equivalency sports (that offer partial scholarships) where you can do this most readily is take a little different approach, and optimize revenue, do the best you can on the performance side, but decrease the actual dollar investment the university is making,” Staben said.

Idaho currently sponsors 16 sports. Its football program would be a break-even proposition if the athletic department were credited for the tuition and other revenue generated by the team, according to the university presentation.

The football program will become less expensive at the FCS level, with scholarships dropping from 85 to 63, lower travel costs and eventual regression in coaching salaries. The program also will produce less revenue when it makes that move this fall.

For 2017-18, the athletic department will produce about $6.4 million in tuition, fees, books, room and board for the university. That’s roughly $1 million more than the institutional support.

One factor helping push Idaho’s plan: Enrollment has decreased. Eliminating three sports would remove an estimated 65 students from school. Adding sports would bring in 60.

Idaho also reported at the meeting that it plans to ask for a tuition increase this year at a time when it has fewer students to pay the bills. Cutting sports could result in more lost revenue for the university.

“(Eliminating sports) takes the million-dollar problem in the athletic fund and hands it to me and to the auxiliaries,” Vice President for Finance Brian Foisy said. “If they transfer that deficit problem to me ... then I go out to all the deans and support units and we have conversations about cutting those budgets. It simply hands the hot potato to somebody else.”

According to the department’s calculations, its current revenues – including tuition and other student expenses – of $6.3 million would be reduced to less than $5 million if teams were cut. They’d be raised to about $7.2 million if sports were added.

The new teams wouldn’t start competition until at least 2019-20, but women’s swimming coach Mark Sowa has expressed interest in coaching a men’s team, too. He also could coach the triathlon swimmers, while track coaches could help the triathlon runners. Staben noted that Vandal graduate Kristin Armstrong, the three-time gold medal cyclist, is likely to be excited about potentially adding the team. He also said one of the strength coaches could coach rifle, as he’s a former Army marksman.

“I think what we want to do is to take a more creative approach to thinking about what athletics does for your students and for your university,” Staben said.

Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @davesouthorn