Sunday, January 28, 2007

A BG Track Alum's Account of This Mess

Yet Another One Bites the Dust

On Wednesday, it was rumored over at Lets Run that Ohio University's men's track program would be eliminated. On Thursday, the official announcement came (men's swimming and women's lacrosse got it too) followed by a press conference. I sat on this one for a few days so I could try to find out a bit more.

The usual reasons were given: finances and Title IX. The AP wirestory ran all over the state said it was necessary to "meet a federal requirement regarding athletic scholarships", which isn't what was said either in the release or at the press conference. Only participation proportionality was cited. Either way, it's a canard; cutting a women's sport does not improve any kind of male-female ratio. Furthermore, the AD's hand was not forced on the issue, as federal regulations give schools a number of options. And an early story on Swimming World's website said OU was already in compliance with Title IX, although its reference is nowhere to be found at the student newspaper's wesbite. My best guess is that university administrators told the students to do a re-write.

As far as the money issues go, I'd really like it if an accountant would get involved in this, because the numbers each side uses are widely different. OU's AD Kirby Hocutt said the university could save as much as $685,000 per year from the cuts. However, the numbers filed with the federal Office of Post-Secondary Education showed a total operating budget of only $223,854 for the affected sports, not all of which has even been cut (XC is included in track totals). Hocutt referred to a $14.7 million annual budget, while his numbers sent to the feds show $16.7 million; Hocutt said the total 3-year deficit is around $4 million, while his numbers sent to the feds have balanced books.

Regardless, the best-case scenario has these cuts closing only half of Hocutt's financial gap. Nor does he mention the revenue OU will lose from these cuts--the NCAA distributes some of its money to schools by the number of sports and scholarships they offer. OU will lose out on over $70,000 sent from Indianapolis.

However, when anyone does future financial figures at a state university in Ohio it looks very bleak. Athletic departments are immune to this except for one glaring hole: scholarships. Tuition in Ohio costs 47% more than the national average. A full scholarship now costs well in excess of $10,000, whereas mine at BGSU fifteen years ago was less than half that.

The 800-pound gorilla in all of this is football, as with every school that makes these kinds of cuts. OU's situation warrants some special mention. Long a bottom-dweller in the MAC, OU's football program made many changes over the past few years. In 2001, the track was removed from Peden Stadium, the field lowered, and seating increased at a cost of $2.8 million. In 2005, OU hired Frank Solich (currently paid $262,172 annually), the former head coach at Nebraska. Just two months into his first season, he got into some hot water. OU became a regular on conference football broadcasts and just this year went to its first bowl game in 38 years.

To which the ordinary person responds, "Hey! They're making a lot of money now!" Actually, not really. The MAC's TV contract revenues are split equally among all conference members regardless of whether they're featured or not (and hosting a TV crew can sometimes add considerable expense). The same goes for the bowl appearance; OU pays its bowl-related expenses and then turns over the remainder of the $750,000 payout to the conference to again be split up equally. The only way to recoup increased football spending is through home ticket sales, merchandising, or going on the road and getting blown out by a big-time powerhouse. It will take OU a long time to get an additional $2.8 million out of that, just like BGSU is still paying off its $2.2 million stadium upgrade (which oddly enough occurred a few years before they killed off sports too).

Part of all this is the "stepping-stone" status of the MAC. It's Division 1-A, but barely. No one in a decision-making position takes a career job in a MAC school. If an AD upgrades the status of the football program while not appearing to run the school broke, he instantly makes himself more appealing to a big-time university. If he ticks off the locals and alumni and leaves the place a wreck, it's not his problem because he's not going to be there. As a friend on the inside once said, D-1 athletic departments are snakepits.

UPDATE: An anonymous poster at Let's Run gives his version of events.

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