In the unending desire of higher education institutions to differentiate themselves as unique, the University of Idaho is aligning itself with the state’s widely recognized timber industry.
Idaho will build its new basketball arena with wood.
“It ties in with our land grant mission. It ties in with the timber industry. It ties in with our need for a facility. This is really resonating with people,” UI Athletic Director Rob Spear said.
As the UI works through the transition that will see it return to the Big Sky Conference as a football-playing member in 2018 after two decades as an NCAA Football Bowl Series school, the new arena is a bold statement UI athletics are not simply retrenching.
Mass timber construction, while a well-established technology in Canada, is still new in the U.S. The university already built a plant nursery with wood.
“It won sustainability awards,” Spear said.
This was the germ of the idea to use mass timber construction for a basketball arena. Opsis Architecture of Portland, which has done several projects at the UI – including the campus centerpiece Teaching and Learning Center – will design the building.
The computer screen on Spear’s desk is filled with titles of facilities plans. Leaning against an office wall are a dozen or so large scale artists’ renderings of potential arenas.
From a trove of documents, Spear produces bound feasibility studies from 1969 and 2007 for a basketball arena.
“It’s really important to get a shovel in the ground to show we are serious after 50 years of talking about this,” he said.
Fundraising for the $30 million facility, which will include a 4,500- to 4,700-seat performance court, a practice gym, coaches offices and space for conventions, is 67 percent complete. The building is set to open in 2020, late 2019 at the earliest.
Taking on such a capital project reflects UI’s ability to operate in the higher echelon of athletic fundraising even if going forward it will do so as a Football Championship Series school.
If one of the fundamental aspects of paying for big-time college sports is the realization you are never “there,” that the Power Five conferences keep raising the bar, there is enough of that in Idaho’s DNA to keep the university looking forward and thinking big. After the arena is built, the athletic department will swing into raising money to improve soccer facilities and beyond that to possibly expanding the Kibbie Dome.
“You just can’t stop,” Spear said.
A lesson learned 35 years ago is in part responsible for this urgency. In 1982, Don Monson’s Vandals men’s basketball team was ranked among the top 10. It played in the NCAA regional tournament and it was the subject of a Sports Illustrated feature.
“In 1982, we were the Gonzaga of the west,” Spear said. “We did not capitalize on that. Shame on us.”
Now the prospect of unveiling an innovative and dramatic basketball venue is helping UI negotiate the financial landscape on its journey from FBS to FCS. The school hopes the buzz associated with building the arena carries over to fundraising for athletic department operating revenue, offsetting an expected loss of $1 million in conference revenue from football guarantees when Idaho exits the FBS Sun Belt Conference.
A USA Today study using revenue statistics from 2015 shows institutional support of $8.4 million and student fees of $2.1 million comprised 53.05 percent of Idaho’s $19.7 million athletic budget. Contributed fees, $3.2 million, rights and licensing revenue, $2.5 million, ticket sales, $632,000 and other revenue made up the remaining $9.2 million.
Ideally, the ratio between institutional support and revenue raised by the athletic department would be 50-50, according to Spear.
But there is no one-size-fits-all blueprint. For example, Washington State University’s $54 million athletic budget includes only 11.3 percent public money, according to USA Today, reflecting the Pac-12 Conference’s immense television deal. Eastern Washington University’s $13.4 million athletic budget, by contrast, included 69.4 percent public funds.
If Idaho is already in the ballpark of its desired split between institutional backing and athletic department revenue, the challenge is staying there. While the number of athletic department donors overall is up, Spear said, money raised has fallen about $200,000, because of four or five large donors’ discontent with the move to FCS.
“It’s up to us to get them back in the fold,” Spear said.
Most annual contributors are motivated by a desire to support student-athletes. The question remains: Does it matter if those athletes are competing in the Sun Belt or the Big Sky?
Dee Blair graduated from Idaho in 1969 and returned to Moscow to live in 2006. An avid Vandals fan, she attends both men’s and women’s games, and has worked with the Latah County Boosters selling 50-50 raffle tickets. Certainly it’s the shallow end of the donor pool. Still, do raffle ticket buyers care what conference Idaho competes in?
“I don’t think so,” Blair said. “Who knows anything about (Sun Belt school) Georgia State?
“Most people go to games to support the teams and their efforts.
“I know some of the donors would rather play Division I. But most of us diehard fans are glad to be in the Big Sky. We like to beat up on Montanans. Most of us like the band, we don’t care what league we’re in.”
As an FBS school, Idaho supports 16 men’s and women’s sports, about 350 athletes. As an FCS school, it could drop to 14 sports as long as it maintains an appropriate Title IX ratio of opportunities for women’s athletes. Over the next year school officials will decide how many sports to continue playing, and, equally important, what sports to offer.
“We need to sponsor the sports that are right for the institution,” sports that are grounded in the athletic culture of the Northwest, Spear said.
“You can grow your way out of a problem or cut your way out,” he said. “We would prefer to grow our way out,” although he acknowledges the ultimate answer may include both.
Also, as an FBS school, Idaho is near the bottom of the division for what it pays football coaches. If it can maintain its current funding level, it will be near the top of FCS.
If the new mass timber construction basketball arena testifies to Idaho’s ability to get the most out of its athletic dollars, there is some history for this.
Since it is leaving the FBS, the university can no longer compete for the Excellence in Management Cup presented by Texas A&M University.
“The purpose of the EM Cup,” the university explains, “is to bring awareness to NCAA athletic departments that are maximizing fiscal resources through championship victories. In other words, the less money spent in relation to championships won, the more points are earned.”
In 2014, Idaho won the cup.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.