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Wake-up call: Athletic Department budget shortfall raises conern at Bemidji State University

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BEMIDJI – When the Bemidji State University men’s hockey program went from being solvent one season to requiring an infusion of more than $260,000 to pay its bills the next, the alarms sounded on campus.

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“That was a wake-up call for the university,” said Scott Faust, BSU’s director of communication and marketing.

For the 2010-11 season, BSU’s first year in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and newly christened Sanford Center,  the men’s hockey program was self-sufficient. But by 2011-12, the men’s program required $262,380 from the university to cover shortfalls in its budget.

In response, BSU President Richard Hanson ordered a thorough review of Beaver athletics, culminating in a 74-page report from Collegiate Consulting and a challenge to athletic department staff to “change the trajectory of athletics at our university and to ensure financial sustainability.”

The six-month-long investigation revealed significant funding gaps at BSU versus conference competitors, whether that be in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference for BSU’s 13 Division II sports or the WCHA for its Division I men’s and women’s hockey teams.

In 2009, a year before becoming a WCHA conference member, athletic director Rick Goeb said playing in the powerful conference, as well as the city-owned event center, would bring additional revenue to BSU as early as the 2010-11 season.

Goeb also pledged administrative support to competitively fund all programs, hoping to work in tandem with alumni and Beaver Pride to give the Division II programs a better chance at winning NSIC championships. Winning titles, though, would take time.

In the NSIC, Bemidji ranks 12th of 16 institutions in endowments and is below conference averages for scholarships, coaches and administrative staff, according to the Collegiate Consulting report.

The report prompted Hanson to write a letter, distributed last Monday to athletics staff, in said athletics was “not sustainable” in its current form.

“There are substantial and significant fiscal challenges for athletics, particularly in light of the fact that the university will no longer be in a position to increase its subsidies of athletics to cover revenue shortfalls,” Hanson wrote.

‘unified vision’

The university now is preparing to usher in a new era of Beaver athletics.

Hanson, who was unavailable to meet with the Pioneer, said in his letter to athletics staff that the department must improve on many fronts, including NCAA compliance, fiscal stability, communication, and professional development.

“BSU Athletics needs to present a clear and unified vision for success that can be shared and promoted to attract a much higher level of fan and funding support,” Hanson wrote.

The university will focus on increasing community support and engagement of its athletics teams, with the goals of increasing attendance, ticket sales, donations and Beaver Pride memberships.

“There’s a dollar sign behind almost every indicator,” Faust said, referencing findings in the report.

The goal is to create a buzz surrounding the athletics teams and telling their stories, not just game results but those of the student-athletes who compete.

Student-athletes, for example, record higher-than-average graduation rates and strong grades-point averages. Female student-athletes have a cumulative grade-point average of 3.25; the men, 2.93.

The university, as a whole, has about 39,000 alumni, 70 percent of which live in Minnesota, according to the report.

The university, as it aims to increase private support of Beaver athletics, will be looking toward those alumni for financial support.

“We have alumni across the state, across the country, across the world,” Faust said. “What we’re saying is, yes, we’re optimistic we can grow our resources in the community.”

Gary “Ziggy” Zerott, a 1977 Bemidji State alumnus, founded Cool Threads in 1982 in downtown Bemidji, offering embroidery and screen-printing and selling BSU and Bemidji High School apparel, much of it sports-themed.

“It’s huge for us on weekends when the sports are in town,” Zerott said. “If there were no athletic sports at all, I doubt I’d be open.”

Zerott, a BSU donor since he graduated, said he’s looking forward to watching BSU’s athletic plans unfold.

“I think they definitely need that,” he said. “It’s exciting to see what they’re going to do, to watch how it all plays out.”

Excitement, he continued, will spread throughout alumni if changes produce results.

“If I see a positive direction, I’m inclined to give more,” Zerott said.

Challenging job

After this school year, BSU plans to sever ties with Goeb as the university employs a national search to hire a replacement.

Key BSU boosters were informed of the decision by Hanson in an email, which like the letter to athletics staff was sent last Monday.

“We cannot in good conscience direct more state dollars to athletics, we must inspire greater private support from people like you,” Hanson wrote to boosters.

Funding for Minnesota universities has shifted during the past 10 years, and BSU has become increasingly more reliant on student tuition – rather than legislative appropriations – to pay for expenses.

“This means we must work harder and more creatively to build enthusiasm for our teams,” Hanson said.

Hanson also wrote BSU must strengthen its financial footing to remain competitive.

Faust said he’s confident BSU can find someone to lead the effort.

“We’re looking for someone who is up for a challenge because, clearly, we are not where we want to be,” Faust said.

Competitively, Bemidji was ranked second-to-last in the NSIC in the consultant’s report.

Teams were ranked through Director’s Cup scoring, which awards each school points based on the performances of its athletic teams.  In the NSIC, BSU was ahead only of the University of Minnesota Crookston. 

“We want to be competitive … in our sports; we want to have outstanding results in many of them,” Faust said. “We’re not a middle-of-the-pack university and we don’t want that illustrated in our athletics.”

The desire to succeed athletically stems from the university’s commitment to providing an above-average educational experience. Faust said athletic excellence is a critical part of building excellence for the entire institution.

“President Hanson is not someone who lives and dies by every game outcome; he likes to succeed in a more comprehensive way,” Faust said. “It’s about not being satisfied with mediocrity.”

Faust said the university’s mix of intercollegiate athletics – 13 Division II programs and two Division I hockey teams – presents both a challenge and opportunity as it moves toward finding a new athletic director.

“I think that is a selling point for us in terms of recruitment,” he said. 

The Collegiate Consulting report – which, Faust said, is internally viewed more as “research” than a roadmap – recommended multiple new positions in both administration and coaching.

Faust predicted a new athletic director would not be on campus until summer, but noted that the university will continue looking at the best structure for Beaver athletics.

“The new athletic director will definitely be critical in the overall progress that we make, but we’re not going to be sitting there with our arms crossed,” he said.

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