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Idaho athletics, facing budget deficit, must get creative

MOSCOW, Idaho – An athletics department budget shortfall of about $1 million that the University of Idaho has staved off for four years with budget reserves has come to a point where it must be resolved.

The reserves, a $2 million payment Idaho received when it exited the Western Athletic Conference, are exhausted, and the Board of Regents that governs the institution will not let UI carry a deficit more than two years without a waiver.

Idaho can go one of three ways. A windfall donation to Vandals athletics could eliminate the deficit.

More likely, UI could get its athletics budget in balance by cutting soccer, men’s golf and swimming. Despite the Vandals’ competitive success in these, they are all sports the university is not required to have as a member of the Big Sky Conference. Dropping them would not jeopardize Idaho’s membership in the league.

Or Idaho can convince the regents to adopt an innovative way of counting revenue. This would allow the university to add three sports to bring in new money to erase the deficit, and it could create a template to permit Idaho and perhaps other state public higher education institutions to justify adding sports.

The first step is to get regents to grant UI a waiver to continue carrying a deficit until it can get its plan to add sports fine-tuned, adopted by the board and put in play over the next two years. Idaho officials will ask for a waiver when the regents meet in Moscow on Wednesday and Thursday.

If it is granted, UI hopes to show by adding men’s swimming, women’s triathlon and rifle that it can attract about 65 new student-athletes. They would not receive athletic scholarships but would get out-of-state tuition waivers covered by academic scholarships.

Most important for the budget, the in-state tuition and fees the new student-athletes would pay would bring in enough money to allow the university to deal with the deficit. The proposal was developed earlier this year by UI president Chuck Staben, athletics director Rob Spear, and vice president for finance Brian Foisy.

Until now, regents have not counted such tuition and fees as athletics department revenue, Staben said. But Staben said he has floated the idea by several athletics directors he knows, and they see merit in it.

One of those athletic directors is David Sayler at Miami (Ohio). He and Staben were formerly colleagues when Sayler was the athletics director at South Dakota from 2010-2012. Staben was provost there from 2008-14, when he came to UI.

“The value these kids bring to campus is all around us, but it’s not very often looked at,” Sayler said. “I give Chuck a lot of credit for bringing this to the forefront.”

Men’s swimming, women’s triathlon and rifle are all particularly good fits for UI, Staben said. The university has a competition-quality pool, and women’s swim coach Mark Sowa is not opposed to coaching a men’s team and women’s triathletes as well, Staben said. He also said Washington and Oregon have strong high school boys swim programs that would give Idaho a good base of potential athletes from which to draw.

Women triathletes could also train for running with UI track and cross country athletes. While he has not approached her, Staben said UI alum, three-time Olympic gold medalist and director of high performance competition for USA Cycling Kristen Armstrong, might help Idaho triathletes with cycling training.

Rifle makes sense for UI because rosters include men and women, which would help the university balance opportunities for men and women athletes as required by Title IX. Idaho already has a rifle range associated with its ROTC program, and a current strength coach formerly had experience with precision shooting in the military and agreed to coach a new rifle team.

Ideally, regents this month would provisionally grant UI a waiver to continue its athletics deficit, Staben said. They would work with the university over the summer to refine its plan to add sports. In June (in Idaho Falls) or August (in Pocatello), they would formally sign off on the measure. Idaho would begin recruiting athletes to the new sports this year. Competition would begin in 2019, and the new programs would grow and stabilize by 2022.

The regents’ business affairs and human resources committee has been briefed on the Idaho proposal and found it “interesting,” Staben said. But regent and committee chairmen Richard Westerberg, speaking through staff spokesman Mike Keckler, declined comment in advance of the board’s Moscow meeting on whether regents are likely to grant UI a provisional waiver to continue its athletics deficit while it works on its plan to add sports.

Still, the proposal has cleared one big hurdle, Staben believes. In the early 1980s, a landmark Title IX lawsuit, Blair vs Washington State University, established a precedent that universities must treat all NCAA student-athletes equally, regardless of gender or sport. Because the NCAA counts out-of-state tuition waivers backed by academic scholarships as scholarships, Idaho would not be at risk of establishing a second class of NCAA athletes with new sports and run afoul of Title IX, Staben said.

“There might be a few adjustments here and there,” he said.

If Idaho’s proposal is approved, it could create a template for UI and other schools in the state to add sports. Staben points out UI has thriving club sports, and some could conceivably be brought under the umbrella of NCAA sports in the future.

Presidents of Boise State, Idaho State and Lewis-Clark State are all aware of Idaho’s plan, Staben said. Only one has expressed no desire to explore it for its institution, although Staben did not identify which president that was.

Staben said the idea probably held little interest for BSU, since its ability to raise athletics revenue and attract contributed funds puts it in a league beyond the other Idaho public higher education institutions.

If regents do not grant UI a waiver, Staben said he has no recourse but to eliminate teams. There are not enough savings to be wrung out of across-the-board budget cuts to athletics to erase the deficit.

To give it flexibility if it has to cut teams, UI in March asked the Big Sky to not enforce its requirement that Idaho field teams in the league’s 13 core sports, but the request was denied. That puts noncore sports women’s soccer, men’s golf and swimming in the crosshairs for possible elimination. Even if they are cut, UI would have to add back a couple of sports, probably women’s triathlon and sand volleyball, to maintain a balance of opportunities between men’s and women’s sports required by Title IX.

Staben acknowledged there is trepidation in the athletics department. Coaches whose teams are successful in competition, whose student-athletes graduate and in whom UI has made capital investments – such as a new turf in the Kibbie Dome to accommodate the women’s soccer team – wonder what else they have to do to ensure their future. Staben said he weighed whether to go public with the university’s budget challenge in advance of the regents’ meeting but decided it was better for coaches and athletes to learn about the issue now “rather than on the afternoon of April 19 in at a surprise at the board meeting.”

Complicating the matter is that Spear, the athletics director, and a key architect of the plan to deal with the deficit by changing the way the regents count revenue, is on a 60-day administrative leave arising from the way the athletics department dealt with sexual harassment complaints in 2013. Staben said UI has adequate forces to make its case to the regents, even with Spear absent, and he said the budget matter and a review of the way UI handled the harassment complaints in the athletics department are parallel issues that do not converge.

UI would vastly prefer adding sports to bring in new revenue rather than eliminating them to cut costs, Staben said. He noted the success of the women’s soccer program, which drew 4,000 fans to its opening game in the dome this year, the first NCAA soccer game played indoors.

“I don’t want to eliminate a great program like that,” he said.

Sayler believes UI will prevail in its bid to accept a new view of what constitutes athletics revenue.

“Chuck is extremely bright,” Sayler said. “He looks at all sides of a thing. I am confident what he proposes will be a success for the university.”