The majority of Division IA presidents said in a recent study that they feel they have no control over their respective athletic department budgets. But University President Mary Sue Coleman says she’s an exception to the rule.
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics issued a report last month that found university presidents feel powerless in combating the rising costs associated with intercollegiate sports. The Knight Commission is a college sports think tank operated by college administration heavyweights from around the country — including University of Michigan Regent Andrea Fischer Newman, who is a member of the organization.
The report — which was based on interviews this spring and summer with 95 of the 120 presidents of Football Bowl Subdivision schools — found the majority of college presidents recognized a need to restructure athletic departments to reduce costs. But many of the presidents reported that they don’t feel like they’re in a position to create that change.
“Presidents would like serious change, but don’t see themselves as the force for the changes needed, nor have they identified an alternative force they believe could be effective,” the report stated.
In an interview late last month with The Michigan Daily, University President Coleman said she could not remember if she had been interviewed for the study, but said she had read the report and doesn’t think the findings are true for the University.
“I understand that maybe a lot of presidents feel like they can’t do anything, but I guess I don’t feel that way about myself at Michigan,” Coleman said.
She added: “Maybe I’m very privileged to be in this circumstance, (but) I do feel like we have good control.”
While the Athletic Department’s finances are separate from those of the academic operations of the University, Coleman said Michigan has had a tradition of firm presidential control over intercollegiate athletics, which is uncommon among other universities.
“We are very fortunate here that the presidents have been able to sort of be in charge, and we’ve had good administration and a good athletic director who has put us in an extremely good financial position,” she said.
Despite Coleman’s optimism, many university presidents who responded in the report questioned how long they could sustain their current athletic operations given escalating athletic expenses. Roughly half of the respondents said their current athletic models will impact the number of varsity sports they will be able to maintain in future years.
Coleman said the University has been “very conscious” about the need to create sustainable athletic operations.
She cited the work of Athletic Director Bill Martin, who focused on athletic sustainability issues during his nine years as director. In the 1999 fiscal year, the Athletic Department suffered a $2.8 million deficit. According to documents from a University Board of Regents meeting in 2008, the department was projected to run a $10.3 million surplus during the last fiscal year.
Martin recently announced that he will retire next September, and Coleman said she is searching for a new athletic director who will also make fiscal stability a priority.
“One of the issues that I will be looking for in the next athletic director is somebody who can articulate the ways in which to keep what we do at Michigan sustainable,” she said.
In the report, many university presidents cited the hardships associated with mounting athletic costs. Three-fourths of the presidents interviewed for the study said that athletics present a unique problem in controlling costs compared to other schools, departments and units at their universities.
At the University of Michigan, costs appear to be similarly on the rise. But unlike most other universities, the University of Michigan’s budget has been running at a surplus of late.
Bill Martin and Jason Winters, chief financial officer for the Athletic Department, estimated athletic revenue would increase this year to about $94 million and expenditures would be roughly $85.6 million, according to documents prepared for a June regents meeting.
Those numbers are both up from the year before, when Martin and Winters budgeted revenue from University athletics to be about $90.5 million and operating expenses about $80.2 million.
Factors affecting costs included the rising salaries of coaches and the number of coaches and athletic personnel, according to the report.
Eighty-five percent of presidents responded in the interview that they thought salaries for football and basketball coaches were too high and that salaries are the “greatest impediment” to athletic sustainability.
However, more than half the presidents indicated they feel they have no power to reduce coach’s salaries because of the amount of private support that funds those salaries.
About two-thirds of presidents replied that policy changes should be studied in an effort to cut down on the number of athletic personnel and coaches of revenue-producing sports. More than half expressed a desire to decrease the number of coaches of non-revenue sports.
Presidents also identified the pressure to renovate and build new athletic facilities as a factor that impacts athletic spending.
University of Michigan Athletic Department has spent heavily on its facilities during the past few years as well. Renovations to the Big House are expected to cost $226 million. Other major athletic construction projects include the $26.1 million Al Glick Field House for football practice and the new basketball practice facility, which is estimated to cost $23 million.
Despite these large price tags, Coleman said the University is responsible about its athletic expenditures.
“Even though we have a lot of construction and renovation going on in athletics, I don’t feel like it’s irresponsible,” she said. “We’ve met all of our budget targets.”
While financing new construction projects can be a challenge in an economic recession, 62 percent of presidents surveyed said the effect of the economic downturn on athletic budgets mirrored the effect on other divisions of their institution. Reasons for this included proportional cuts in athletic and academic spending and a loss in both public and private funding to all units of universities.
Almost all the presidents agreed that they felt confident the financial information they received from their athletic departments was accurate. But eight out of 10 presidents said there needed to be greater transparency in athletic operating and capital costs.
One anonymous president said in the report that transparency would help solve budget problems.
“If our public is fully aware of the money and other issues, it will support proper values,” the president said.
Regardless of all the challenges associated with maintaining high-cost athletic departments, the majority of presidents believed athletics benefited their universities by increasing the number of applicants, generating more donations and raising school spirit.