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UNI's funding not on level playing field with intrastate rivals
The ducks are in a row.
On the playing field, University of Northern Iowa athletics director Troy Dannen wants his school to look just like its larger intrastate rivals Iowa and Iowa State.
But when comes to funding athletics, UNI faces big differences.
“When you look at the three and you look at the UNI duck and the Iowa duck and the Iowa State duck, I want them to all look the same,” Dannen said. “I don’t want you to be able to tell them apart. This duck might win that game and this duck might win that game, but going in you aren’t sure what duck might win.
“But under water our ducks are nowhere close to the same. We’re put together completely differently. So we’ve created the impression that our ducks are the same, but we don’t build our ducks the same. We don’t fund our ducks the same.”
According to information provided by public institutions for a USA Today study on collegiate athletics, Iowa earned $35 million in licensing and radio/TV rights in 2011. Iowa State received $18.2 million in that area and is expected to see a $7 million increase in TV revenue over the next two years as the Big 12 finalizes a new mega-contract.
UNI’s revenue from rights and licensing in 2011 was just $2.4 million, covering 14.8 percent of the athletic department’s total expenses. That category covered 39.8 percent of the University of Iowa’s expenses.
Beyond the television, radio and corporate sponsorships are canyon-sized gaps in the revenue Iowa and Iowa State receive in ticket sales ($23.2 million and $11.6 million) and contributions ($26.6 million and $11.5 million) compared to UNI ($1.3 million and $3.4 million).
With the exception of the 0.6 percent it takes in from student fees, Iowa’s athletics department generated 99.4 percent of its total revenue in 2011. Iowa State generated 93.3 percent of its revenue with 7.7 subsidized from student fees and direct or indirect support from the university.
For UNI, that percentage of subsidized support was 47.3, a figure that has gradually decreased from 72 percent in 2003.
“We’ll be around 52 or 53 percent generated,” Dannen said. “The Board of Regents wants us to be 100 percent generated. Iowa has been. Iowa State is now going to be. The problem with that expectation, and I want to tell you it’s completely unrealistic and it will never happen because the revenue streams at a place like UNI don’t exist that exist at the upper shelf — the five big-time (BCS) football leagues.”
The playing field
Missouri State athletics director Kyle Moats can empathize with Dannen. Cuts in state funding have reduced the amount of state and institutional support his athletics department receives.
“The fact that there’s not anybody at our level that is (self-supported) I think says volumes,” Moats said. “I think it’s unrealistic because we just don’t have the radio and television and the number of people coming to our events that the flagship (University of Missouri), if you will, has.”
Missouri State has become more efficient with regard to travel and has also tried to keep team roster sizes in check. The school’s total expense budget of $13.8 million in 2011 was the second-lowest among MVC public institutions.
“Obviously we’re trying to sell more tickets and we’re trying to be better philanthropically to help on the revenue side,” Moats said. “But we’ve done about all we can do from the expense side. It really is a revenue issue at this point.”
North Dakota State, a member of the Missouri Valley Football Conference and Western Wrestling Conference, is similar to UNI in regard to the size of its athletics budget and the percentage of subsidized support it receives. The Bison football team is coming of an FCS national championship and is fueled by a large and loyal fan base.
NDSU athletics also get help from reciprocity agreements that allow the Bison to recruit some out-of-state athletes at in-state costs, which helps reduce their overall scholarship expenses.
Yet NDSU athletics director Gene Taylor agrees with Dannen and Moats that the idea of his school’s athletics department becoming self-supporting is a stretch.
“We fund ourselves externally a lot more than most FCS programs,” said Taylor, whose athletics department was 47.9 percent subsidized in 2011. “But I don’t know that we’ll ever be self-supporting. We’re still going to need student fees and university support.”
Unlike UNI and Missouri State, NDSU hasn’t had to deal with any recent cuts in funding.
“Knock on wood we haven’t faced the difficult challenges that some of the states have,” Taylor said.
The opposite picture exists in Illinois. Budget shortfalls have forced schools like Illinois State and Southern Illinois to rely heavily on student fees compared to money allocated from state funds.
Including tuition waivers for out-of-state athletes, Illinois State received $2.3 million in institutional support in 2011, while the school’s athletics department was subsidized by $8.33 million in student fees. At Illinois State, the average student pays approximately $75 per credit hour in student fees, which amounts to nearly $1,050 per semester depending on course load.
As Illinois State Executive Associate Athletics Director Larry Lyons points out, student fees have been used since the 1960s when the construction of Horton Field House and Hancock Stadium took place. Those fees must first be approved by student leaders.
“I think this campus has done a very good job of shared governance,” Lyons said. “Involving the students, educating them as to what the fees are, why they’re here, what they support, what a new fee like a rec center is going to cost you, what you’re going to get out of it. It’s always been an education-first type process.
“Everyone administratively and students over time have accepted it as a way to improve the institution through fees. … Illinois State has done a pretty good job of hanging in there while the state (financial) support has gone down.”
Missouri State currently does not charge a student fee, while Northern Iowa’s student fees ($1.4 million) made up 21.7 percent of the allocated support the school received in 2011. The respective ADs view more student fee support as an opportunity to decrease the reliance on state funding or general fund transfers.
“When you look at different revenue streams, the thing that can help us most is a student fee,” Moats said. “We can’t rely completely on season tickets and sell out every game. We’d like to do that, there’s some places to do that and hopefully we can improve. But you have to invest in basketball in order for that to happen, you have to invest in football more than what we have to try and help increase the revenues.”
FBS cash grab
Another revenue option at FCS schools’ disposal is scheduling games against FBS opponents. Missouri State played two FBS schools, Arkansas and Oregon, last season and has trips to Kansas State and Louisville planned this fall.
UNI similarly added Wisconsin to its schedule as a second FBS guarantee game in 2012. The two schools have viewed the additional football game as a short-term budget solution.
“Playing that second game is strictly because of financial reasons,” Moats said. “It was really to help us offset a capital expense that we needed to incur, so it wasn’t like we were going to use it on a recurring basis. It’s not the direction that we necessarily want to go for our football team at this particular time.”
Taylor addressed the issue with NDSU football coach Craig Bohl as his program made the transition from NCAA Division II to FCS.
“After we got eligible for the playoffs, Coach Bohl and I had a pretty long discussion philosophically,” Taylor said. “As long as we don’t have to do that we will always just play one (FBS team) and we’ll try to get that one to as high a (guaranteed) number as we possibly can. We’re going to try to play the bigger BCS opponents from the bigger conferences as opposed to the MACs and WACs of the world.”
UNI in the middle
In the end, UNI is on the median when its athletics budget is compared alongside the six Missouri Valley Conference public institutions.
The 47.3 percent of the school’s athletics revenue subsidized by institutional support, state funding and student fees also ranks in the middle. Wichita State, which doesn’t have a football program, and Missouri State receive less subsidized support. Indiana State, Illinois State and Southern Illinois receive more.
“The thing that’s unique about UNI, and the flaw at UNI, is the fact that institutional education funds are the foundation of our institutional support,” Dannen explained. “With the exception of Missouri State in our league, no other school in the Valley is that way. Every other school, the foundation of their institutional support is student fees.
“Why that makes sense is because there’s an institutional role that we have from a marketing standpoint, so it’s logical there would be institutional support for the program, like there is for the marketing department. But the primary part of athletics on campus is about student life, and so it’s reasonable that other schools like us rely on student fees to support the programs moreso than institutional dollars.”
Something has to change, or UNI athletics will change — and not for the better.
“Ten or maybe 15 years ago, a lot of schools looked like us and made those changes,” said Dannen. “The long-term financial viability for UNI athletics to me absolutely will rely on us making a similar change.
“I know we have to have a certain level of (institutional) support in order to maintain things,” Dannen said. “My belief in the long term, seven to 10 years out, that’s where we need to be student fee-based. Either way it comes somewhat on the backs of students.”