MOSCOW, Idaho – The light at the end of the tunnel for University of Idaho athletics as the country emerges from COVID-19 restrictions is the opening of the new Idaho Central Credit Union Arena this year.
The day the doors open this fall, the Vandals will be the proud owners of one of the most compelling college basketball facilities in the country, a mass timber construction venue, alight with a ceiling and walls of shining blond wood with the soaring arcs of a Renaissance cathedral and with the back story of a building constructed largely from Douglas fir harvested from Moscow Mountain that dominates the northern horizon visible from town.
To get there, though, Idaho, like nearly every other college, has had to negotiate the uncertainty of the pandemic, which pushed football to an abbreviated season last spring and forced basketball to play in an almost empty Memorial Gym, and the unfolding issues around the NCAA’s acknowledgment that college athletes have the right to make money from the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL).
Add the university’s effort to upgrade its fiber optic capabilities in the Kibbie Dome to transmit the graphics associated with a new ESPN broadcast package with the Big Sky Conference – a six-figure expense, according to athletic director Terry Gawlik – and Idaho’s effort to dig out from a structural deficit north of $1 million in the athletics budget that is expected to grow to about $3.5 million in the next year.
It adds up to a daunting to-do list for Gawlik.
But at least, she believes, the university is well placed in the Football Championship Subdivision to tackle those issues.
Three decades ago, Idaho was one of the conference’s elite members, a regular contender for championships in nearly all sports.
It returned to the conference in everything but swimming and football in 2014 and football in 2018 after a 20-year venture to play in the Football Bowl Subdivision that concluded when the Sun Belt Conference declined to accept the Vandals’ continuing membership and no other FBC conference would take them in.
Now, Gawlik said, Idaho needs to return to the days when it stomped and everyone else in the Big Sky felt the reverberations.
“I still believe we are in the league we need to be in,” she said. “Now we need to get that back.”
The NIL decision grabbed the spotlight this summer, but Gawlik said the primary issue for Idaho this fall is dealing with the ongoing effects of the pandemic.
“We are still working on our policies” for testing, vaccinations and attendance at events, she said.
Barely a month from the season-opening football game against Simon Fraser University, UI’s primary athletics facility of the Kibbie Dome and adjoining offices, conference rooms, locker rooms, training room and weight room is not yet fully open to the public.
Idaho had no ticket revenue in 2020 as football was postponed and basketball and volleyball were played without fans present. It had drastically reduced ticket revenue in 2021 as three spring football games capped attendance at 5,000 per game.
Getting back to full attendance is crucial for reducing a spiraling structural deficit, Gawlik said. So far, Idaho has no plans to cut sports to balance the budget.
NIL prompted discussions among administrators about what it needs to do to protect the Vandals’ brand, how Idaho can educate student-athletes about their tax liabilities if they take advantage of marketing opportunities and how it can assist students who want to pursue them.
School officials are at the forefront of such discussion.
They are not yet fielding questions from student-athletes about NIL.
“No, not at this point,” Gawlik said.
As Idaho looks ahead to the beginning of a year that seems to have a comforting number of attributes of a normal one, it does so with an athletics department reorganized to give subordinates more autonomy, Gawlik said.
The Vandals are still raising money for capital projects such as completing the new ICCU Arena, paying for the fiber optic upgrades in the Kibbie Dome and resurfacing the dome floor to restore tennis courts there.
Idaho also had to raise funds for a new football practice turf.
Longer term, Idaho officials are seeking to get younger people involved in key roles such as fundraising for athletics scholarships.
They are trying to imagine what the NCAA is going to look like in five years as Power 5 conferences realign and as money from commercial endeavors begins to flow to student-athletes, and the Big Sky is “doing a deep dive to make the conference better,” Gawlik said.
Against the backdrop of such issues, the hallmarks of a return to normalcy will be the ability to open the doors to the dome and new arena, see fans pour in and know the Vandals are finally again open for business.
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