by Dwain Hebda
Any way you slice it, college athletics, at any level, is big business. It’s a big business to boosters, to the communities in which these campuses reside and big business to the universities themselves, seeking to capitalize on a winner to attract more students and alumni dollars.
According to the 2017-2018 NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report, nearly half a million student-athletes participated in sports in which the sanctioning body conducted championships, an all-time high. The NCAA itself generates nearly $1 billion a year from television rights, championship ticket sales and several other revenue streams, money the organization’s website proudly proclaims is returned to student-athletes and member schools in various ways.
But for all of the good that the organization does – and that good is considerable to the point of life-sustaining for many programs – there is just as much criticism as to the nature of such huge money. The NCAA is routinely criticized for being tone-deaf to the plight of athletes, and the call for pay-for-play grows louder each year.
At the local level, college athletic programs are among a community’s most valuable businesses, and it’s fair to paint athletic directors as CEOs. Collectively, college athletic departments directly employ hundreds in the state, indirectly impact thousands more and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
But it’s more than simply turning on the stadium lights that makes a program successful – the scramble to attract fans, raise money to improve facilities and retain staff is a constant for many programs. Throw in health concerns such as concussions, the spectre of legalized sports gambling and issues surrounding mental health in athletes and college athletics becomes far more involved than what the average fan sees on the court or field.
Arkansas Money & Politics interviewed athletic directors at six in-state universities to get their perspective on their programs. We asked them to describe what the average fan doesn’t see on game day and discuss the opportunities and challenges that face their programs and their athletes.
Division I schools leverage individual markets to keep up with the Joneses.
Everything about athletics at the Division I level, the highest classification in collegiate sports, is about competition. Programs compete on the field, in fundraising and in an arms race of facilities and coaches, both nationally and with each other here in The Natural State. It’s an expensive game to play, and most schools operate in the shadow of The Hill when it comes to capturing the hearts and pocketbooks of the average Arkansan.
UNIVERSITY of ARKANSAS, FAYETTEVILLE
Budget: $130 million
Hunter Yurachek, U of A athletic director and skipper for the crown jewel of Arkansas’ collegiate athletics, is resolute in his vision when it comes to the role of the athlete and the athletic department in the overall environment of the university.
“I may be a little bit old-fashioned in this regard, but I still think that the athletic department should function as they were intended to function way back when they were established under the umbrella of the institution,” he says. “That is, to assist in the educational mission of an institution, educating young men and women and preparing them for life after college.”
In USA Today’s annual listing of collegiate athletic programs, Arkansas ranked 19th in the nation in terms of revenue, generating just under $130 million. Last year, Forbes listed the school’s football program as the 13th most valuable in the nation.
Yurachek, who’s entering his second year as athletic director, says the biggest misconception the fans have of big-time college athletics is where the millions of dollars generated by the program ultimately wind up. Yurachek says the money goes back into the program from feeding platoons of athletes to medical training, scholarships and academic support, to timely transportation that minimizes the impact on studies.
“Every dollar we generate in revenue goes back in some way, shape or form to support our students,” he says. “The money doesn’t just go into the pockets of coaches and administrators. It goes back to support our mission of creating opportunities for student success. I think that’s what’s so misunderstood.
“Even regarding the salaries and how they have increased for coaches and administrators over the past 15 to 20 years, we hire and want to retain the best coaches because we want to give our students the best opportunity to have athletic success here at the University of Arkansas.
“Especially in this day and age where we’re talking about all the things that people think we’re not doing for student-athletes [it should be understood] that every dollar is reinvested back into the student-athlete in some way, shape or form.”
UNIVERSITY of ARKANSAS LITTLE ROCK
Budget: $11.5 million
It’s rare to have a football story dominate the Arkansas landscape that doesn’t involve the Razorbacks, but that’s exactly what happened with the will-they/won’t they of UA-Little Rock’s ponderance of whether to bring football back to campus.
A feasibility committee ended the speculation in February by recommending against reviving football at UALR, citing costs that would double the athletic department’s budget. The committee also rejected a proposal to start a marching band, suggesting instead that the department focus on improving its existing sports, which includes a new wrestling program.
For Director of Athletics Chasse Conque, the directive to improve the department in a fiscally responsible way is a familiar one and something to which he’s demonstrated a deft touch over the past five years. Under his leadership, revenue is up and so is enthusiasm for the program.
“When we got here in 2015, we had to turn things around,” he says. “Our enrollment was declining. That significantly impacts our funding model. Our ticket revenue was down, so the premium put on external revenues was more and more crucial.
“We knew we had to create some momentum, some enthusiasm, some excitement for what we were doing, and I think we’ve been able to do that. Now we’re trying to grow it.”
Conque says the contrast between starting a football program and the new wrestling program is an apt illustration of the financial considerations that are a large, if not the only part of decision-making in college athletics administration.
“There’s always the initial capital outlay that it takes to get a program started,” he says. “Wrestling, we needed a facility, same for football. But while our wrestling center is going to cost north of $1.5 million, football would probably be anywhere from $25 (million) to $40 million.
“It’s the sustainability of those programs that keeps CEOs and ADs at universities up at night – how are you going to continue to sustain this? You have to put together a good business plan, and that’s what we did with wrestling.”
UNIVERSITY of CENTRAL ARKANSAS, CONWAY
Budget: $13 million
In addition to the usual challenges surrounding a Division I collegiate athletic program, the University of Central Arkansas has also taken a leading role in addressing athlete mental health. Common in large, Power Five conference schools, it’s rare to see such services offered at a smaller school like UCA.
“We put a program in recently regarding mental wellness and stress management to assist our young men and women,” says Brad Teague, UCA’s athletic director. “It’s still developing; we’re working in partnership with our counseling center.
“We have what we call peer coaches where we have folks who are outside of athletics, who are outside of the coaching realm, assigned to each sport,” he adds. “They’re there to be a sounding board, to provide feedback, to do whatever these young students need.”
Mental health isn’t the only area of athlete well-being that’s changed over the years. Teague says developing protocols for dealing with concussions is another area of health that’s critically important.
“We have a great athletic training program here which transfers into an athletic training staff for our student athletes,” he says. “They’re as professional as you get and they’re on the forefront of concussion protocols. We work with our sports science department, and they’re using our student-athletes for their laboratory studies. I think we’re doing as much as anyone regarding concussions.”
Over Teague’s 12 years at the helm in Conway, every athletic facility has either received a significant overhaul or was built outright. With the shiny buildings, the profile of the program has also been built up. But it’s often tough sledding to build an oasis of Bear purple in a sea of Razorback red.
“Part of our restriction is if we want to do any kind of major project like that it’s got to take a lot of private dollars,” he says. “If the school paid for it, that’s just more subsidizing, and that’s politically just difficult. Anything that we want to do begins with how much money can we raise to do it.
“We’re Division I, like Arkansas, like Arkansas Little Rock, like Pine Bluff, like Arkansas State. But really, the brand you battle is the Razorbacks,” he says. “It’s hard and frustrating at times, yet we have carved our own niche here. We certainly have a great fan base. It could always be bigger and better, but we use that fan base to raise money, to sell tickets, to create revenue.”
ARKANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY, JONESBORO
Budget: $40 million
If Terry Mohajir operates with the mentality of an underdog, it’s a trait he comes by naturally. A former football player and graduate of ASU, he took over an athletic program that had become content to play second fiddle to the U of A. Seven years later, Red Wolves athletics takes a back seat to no one, on the field or off.
“When I got here, our budget was $15.5 million. Out of the 129 FBS schools in America, the only school that had a lower budget in the country was Louisiana-Monroe,” he recalls. “Now our budget, this last fiscal year, is $40 million. You talk about business and economic enhancements, that’s significant.”
Mohajir says the ability to grind is a sorely underappreciated one, but within his department, it’s a job requirement.
“I look at hiring people that have had success at challenging places, that maybe aren’t the obvious places,” he says. “Have they seen the top of the mountain? Have they seen the climb on the way up to the top of the mountain? Those are people that I want to work with. Those are people that I know can get it done. And those are people that have gotten it done in my organization.”
On Mohajir’s watch, the physical and philosophical landscape of Red Wolves athletics has been irreversibly changed for the better, with more new multi-million dollar facilities to come soon. The 66,000-square-foot athletics operations facility, with premium seating and other enhancements in the north end of the Red Wolves’ stadium, is underway, designed by AECOM and built by Ramsons, Inc. The program, however, is not immune to challenges of which Mohajir calls the recurring debate over paying players one of the most serious.
“The pay-for-play model and the attack on amateurism is something that I’m very concerned about,” he says. “I think our model is very good. I think our model has helped hundreds of thousands of young people get a college education when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
“Besides the GI Bill, there’s never been a scholarship program better suited for the youth of America than intercollegiate athletics. More people have achieved success based on this model than if they just got paid and then they’d get taxed and all that stuff. I’m living proof that but for college football and my scholarship, I wouldn’t have had the same life opportunities that I’ve had now.”
Division II schools operate in a world far removed from major network broadcast deals and facilities projects that run into tens of millions of dollars. Athletes usually don’t live, study and eat in designated facilities at these schools and the promise of making the next step in their sport is dimmer. Programs jostle to capture media attention in a world where alternate entertainment exists around every corner. It’s a case study for doing more with less, much less, than the competition down the road.
UNIVERSITY of ARKANSAS FORT SMITH
Budget: $3 million
Like all smaller universities, the Lions program is caught between the steadily escalating cost of doing business and a fan base that’s increasingly content to pursue other forms of entertainment.
“That’s a challenge, trying to keep up, probably the biggest challenge,” says UAFS Director of Athletics Curtis Janz. “As you start to look around the big schools, the Power Five schools, their facilities are just unbelievable. It has trickled down into the Division II level also. They’re not as bright and shiny, but people are building more and more indoor practice facilities and practice gyms. It’s kind of an arms race at every level now.
“[Meanwhile], we have students that are in the dorm that are watching Netflix and making that choice over not coming across the street to watch a basketball game. That is a society issue. That is not just a student at UAFS issue. It’s Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime; people work all day, and they go home and watch three episodes of a show a night. I might do the same thing at times.”
Janz says new facilities, expensive though they are, are essential as equal parts recruitment lure and aid in training winning teams.
“Our baseball team has an indoor facility and our coach, Todd Holland, has been an ultra-competitor the last couple years,” Janz says. “Two years ago, he got to the regional finals, one game from the Division II College World Series. Kids recognize that, and they want to play for that.
“We also have a great arena here, and that helps when recruiting for our basketball teams and volleyball teams. So, we kind of see a little bit of both sides. I don’t think just because you don’t have extra facilities or the nicest facilities you can’t compete, but it does make it easier.”
Janz says while there’s no set formula on pulling in more fans, the steps UAFS has taken in facilities, marketing and competitive success has him optimistic for the future.
“I have on a sign outside my door that we’re learning to compete athletically, academically, socially and personally, and I think we’ve spent a lot of time doing that,” he says. “I think it’s going to pay off in a lot of areas and I think fundraising is going to be one of the areas once the community recognizes that we have a great product for them to buy into.”
ARKANSAS TECH UNIVERSITY, RUSSELLVILLE
Budget: $6 million
In a career spanning nearly 40 years, ATU athletic director Steve Mullins has seen it come and go in college sports. But at its heart, sports at the Division II level still comes down to connection to the community, both on campus and off.
“The Division II level is, off the field, so much different than what it is at the Division I level,” he says. “We truly are an intertwined piece within the university. We have the same struggles as other people do on this campus, and we have the same joys as other people do on this campus.
“But I think what a fan normally sees in Division I athletics, they think that all athletics operate in that manner. It’s much different at our level than what people normally see on television or read in the newspapers.”
The connection to the community is essential because the fan base of smaller schools tends to be located more immediately to campus, although in recent years ATU has managed to broaden its reach through technology.
“Our biggest outreach is normally through our website, through the live stream of our games,” he says. “We have upgraded that consistently from year to year, the way we broadcast our games and the number of people that we reach. Our audience numbers keep increasing.
“Obviously, we also try to appeal to the people of the River Valley to come and watch us compete. We do have good teams; we’ve got some great athletes to watch, and we’ve got some great coaches. We just are, like most Division II schools, a well-kept secret.”
Perhaps nothing typifies the connection an athletics program can have in the community like ATU’s reputation for community service. Through the NCAA’s Team Works community service program, ATU has twice ranked second in the country in community service hours and, in the most recent ranking, was tops in the nation. Mullins relates that accomplishment with audible pride in his voice.
“Our role is basically twofold; one, we provide hopefully positive publicity and a sense of belonging and pride by the success we have as an athletic department. And then the second part is the ability to elevate people’s lives,” he says. “You know, we talk athletically all the time that we want to win, obviously. But we also want to graduate, and we want our athletes to understand the world bigger than just themselves.”