Athletics department tightens belt

The University athletics department is trying to find ways to save money without taking drastic measures.

Michael Rietmulder

This weekend, the University of Minnesota saved $70,000 by sending its football team to its season finale in Iowa via bus rather than plane. In the current economic crisis, the athletics department is trying to find ways to save money without drastic measures such as cutting sports to save money. The University isnâÄôt alone in its efforts, as athletics programs across the country are making similar sacrifices, and some are being forced to make more difficult cuts. The football teamâÄôs bus ride to Iowa can be attributed to a University policy enacted last year calling on teams to bus to away games within 400 miles. Teams are budgeted for bus trips to such destinations as Madison, Wis.; Evanston, Ill.; and Iowa, but teams are free to fly if similarly priced airfare is available. Senior Associate Athletics Director Liz Eull said there are some exceptions to this rule, particularly when the additional travel time of a road trip would interfere with class time. The University will spend $747,468 on charter flight services for its menâÄôs and womenâÄôs basketball programs during the 2009-10 season, more than $426,000 of which is going to CharterSearch Inc., a charter flight company. Joe Quinn, director of flight operations for CharterSearch, said that while there has been a noticeable shift in college teams traveling by bus to destinations they used to fly to, it has not severely impacted the Florida-based company. âÄúThe use of charter keeps students from missing class time, and thatâÄôs still a priority,âÄù Quinn said. CharterSearch provides charter flights to more than 130 college athletic teams, primarily menâÄôs and womenâÄôs basketball. Quinn said he predicted that the impact of the recession would not be felt by universities until this year, since many were still operating on budgets set before the recession. The athletics department has looked for measures beyond paring travel expenses to make up for a $700,000 reduction in funds allocated by the University, Eull said. âÄúEach one of our teams has been held at their budgets from last year,âÄù Eull said, adding that this forces coaches to prioritize what they choose to spend their money on. The department has also looked for little ways to trim expenses, like redoing contracts with some vendors and asking staff to refill the gas tanks of rental cars on recruiting trips prior to returning the vehicle to avoid surcharges. The University is not alone in dealing with funding cuts. University of Massachusetts Director of Athletics John McCutcheon said his department lost $850,000 this year in funds. While this is only $150,000 more than MinnesotaâÄôs athletics department lost in University funds, McCutcheon operates on a total budget of around $21 million compared to MinnesotaâÄôs budget of $74.1 million, making the impact much more severe. In order to cope with this and a decline in corporate sponsors and general donations, McCutcheon eliminated funding for the menâÄôs and womenâÄôs ski teams. McCutcheon said the cuts would save about $100,000. The University of Maine cut its menâÄôs soccer and womenâÄôs volleyball teams; the University of Cincinnati has eliminated scholarships for menâÄôs track, cross country and swimming; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology âÄî one of the countryâÄôs wealthiest universities âÄî has cut eight teams, including wrestling and menâÄôs and womenâÄôs hockey, to deal with budget shortfalls. Even the heralded Stanford University athletics department has taken a financial hit. In February, Stanford announced it was eliminating 21 positions in the athletics department in the face of an expected $5.4-million decrease in revenue over the next three years. The financial situation at the University is not as dire. âÄúWeâÄôve been fortunate that we havenâÄôt had to lay anyone off,âÄù said Eull, though vacated positions have gone unfilled. Revenue from ticket sales at the University has been steady, according to Eull. This year, the University has budgeted for $20 million in ticket sales, but Eull says this is a conservative estimate. The University of Massachusetts is having no such luck. McCutcheon said ticket sales have been down in some sports, and to compensate, the school has looked for ways to increase revenue. For example, MassachusettsâÄô football team will travel to the University of Michigan for a game in 2010. The guaranteed revenue from playing a larger school like Michigan will give the athletics department a financial boost, he said. Though some reports have suggested the economy is on the rebound, McCutcheon does not forecast a quick recovery for his department. âÄúThe storm clouds are out for next year or the next two years,âÄù McCutcheon said.