Few things are more divisive on a university campus than talk of advancing the intercollegiate athletic program to the highest level of competition within the NCAA structure. Advocates for stronger intercollegiate athletics will point to the publicity benefit of having winning teams, as well as the potential to enhance a school’s student recruiting.
On the other hand, educators will point out the negative aspects of too much emphasis on intercollegiate athletics, as well as the diversion of money away from academics to support the sports enterprise. All these points are valid.
Before the proposal to move the University of New Haven’s intercollegiate program from NCAA Division II to Division I becomes an explosive issue, the university administration should initiate a feasibility study. At the very least, the chair of the Faculty Senate and the faculty athletic representative should serve on the committee. A feasibility study would answer basic questions related to the Division I transition: defining “make or break” issues that could prevent the university from being successful; assessing whether moving to Division I makes sense; and creating a framework on which to base discussion.
The nearly 350 schools in NCAA Division I generally have the biggest student bodies, manage the largest athletic budgets and offer the most generous number of scholarships. Schools in Division I commit to maintaining a high academic standard for student athletes in addition to a wide range of opportunities for athletics participation.
I suspect any feasibility study will have two major components. First would be a comprehensive analysis to identify the organizational structure, staffing levels, coaching compensation, student athlete financial aid, sport-by-sport operational budgets, sport sponsorships, indoor and outdoor facility needs, including practice facilities and weight rooms. It would also consider Title IX and gender equity, conference affiliation, NCAA compliance, academic support services, and medical staff and nutrition necessary to compete at the Division I level.
The second need for a feasibility study relates to budget and finance and donor and corporate philanthropy to support a transition to Division I athletics. These two phases will require differing professional expertise to provide in-depth analysis. At most universities, there is a strong belief that untapped alumni donors will gladly give to this initiative. A feasibility study on philanthropy will determine whether alumni actually are willing to do so.
Beyond seed money for the step up to Division I, alumni will be called on to buy season tickets, rent suites and travel to away games. Often the study will identify how many alumni are willing to make a multi-year pledge. But the bills and debt service for new facilities, upgrading of facilities and other costly items related to the transition are due today, resulting in the university having to front the money.
The University of New Haven might compete at the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA). The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics provides good data on the estimated annual expense to function within this classification – an annual athletic department budget of about $30 million to $48 million. In the Northeast, the University of Rhode Island, University of Maine and the University of New Hampshire compete at this level.
Or UNH could compete at the Division I level without football, as do Boston University, Northeastern and the University of Hartford.
There is the added expense to meet Title IX responsibility and to upgrade locker rooms and other indoor and outdoor facilities, and to build new athletic facilities. For the University of New Haven, this expense will approach $200 million.
How to pay for Division I intercollegiate athletics is a complex matter. Most universities draw approximately 33% of the athletic department budget from student fees, 30% from reallocation of tuition revenue and roughly 10% from alumni contributions. The athletic department is expected to generate about 27% of the revenue through ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and the like.
It is critical to note this: Only the few universities in the Power 5 Conferences make money from intercollegiate athletics. Whether operating at the Football Championship Subdivision or in Division I without football, most athletic departments will operate at an annual deficit.
For the University of New Haven trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni and other stakeholders a careful feasibility study will provide context for this discussion. Transparency is critical. Even more so if the choice is to proceed with the NCAA Division I aspiration.
A successful and ethically managed Department of Athletics can have a positive impact on the university and its alumni. However, a successful athletic program is no substitute for academic quality. Most students select a university to continue their education because of the faculty and the breadth and depth of academic majors, not because of its athletic programs.
Athletics has a place at every university, and the charge to the University of New Haven is finding the right way to balance financial support between academics and athletics.
Michael Gargano Jr. is CEO of The Education Think Tank, and past president of St. Vincent’s College and provost and senior vice president for academic and student affairs at the Connecticut State College and University System.