Sports - May 2005

Even winners are losers with nonrevenue sports
By Chris Roush

The name never has been quite accurate. Nonrevenue sports — the ones at colleges and universities that aren’t football and men’s basketball — usually have generated some money, just not very much. At most places, football and basketball pay the bills for baseball, softball, track and field, soccer, lacrosse, wrestling and other varsity sports.

Now athletic directors across North Carolina and the country have launched initiatives that they hope will make that name obsolete. They prefer another one, Olympic sports, though it’s not accurate either because neither golf nor lacrosse is played during the Olympics.

There’s reason for their optimism. When Dennis Thomas, the commissioner of Greensboro-based Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, sat down to negotiate a TV contract with ESPN this year, he made an extra demand: Show sports other than football and basketball. “Before, that wasn’t done. You were just happy to get football, basketball and some women’s basketball.”

This time, he got his wish. When the network’s new cable channel, Charlotte-based ESPNU, devoted exclusively to college sports, signed a seven-year contract with the MEAC in February, it agreed to televise an undetermined number of softball, volleyball, baseball and track and field events. MEAC schools include North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. Games also will appear on ESPN2 and ESPN Classic.

Why would ESPN care about the obscure MEAC? Well, it has to fill ESPNU’s schedule with something. The network launched in March, joining New York-based College Sports TV in broadcasting only college sports, particularly the nonrevenues. Neither channel is widely available. In fact, neither is offered on the primary cable systems in Charlotte or Raleigh. But if that changes, the two networks eventually could give much wider exposure to sports that typically have been ignored.

Chuck Gerber is executive vice president of ESPN Regional Television in Charlotte, which oversees programming on ESPNU. He says the new network, which plans to air about 300 sporting events a year, will help baseball, softball and lacrosse the most. “That kind of exposure can only help a university. It helps them attract athletes, attract alumni and raise money. If we grow the interest, it’s good for us and good for the institution.”

More TV coverage, however, is only one of the tactics that colleges and universities in the state are employing to boost Olympic sports. They also are offering promotions and giveaways, advertising in local newspapers, selling sponsorships in game programs and on signs at the field or arena and raising ticket prices.

N.C. State University spends nearly $100,000 a year to advertise games for baseball, women’s basketball, softball and other sports, says Charlie Cobb, associate athletics director. At East Carolina University in Greenville, the outfield wall is covered with sponsorship signs. And at women’s basketball games at UNC Chapel Hill, cheerleaders throw T-shirts and souvenir basketballs into the crowd.

Fans aren’t the only ones being targeted. The UNC Chapel Hill board of trustees has proposed hiking student athletics fees, part of which goes to the athletic department, from $98 per student to $248.

The school also increased ticket prices for men’s lacrosse and baseball, men’s and women’s soccer and women’s basketball. Those are the only secondary sports in which it charges admission, which increased from $4 to $5 for all events except women’s basketball, which went from $5 to $7. It also installed 300 seats with backs and cup holders near the floor of Carmichael Auditorium, where the women’s basketball team plays, and sold those for $10 a game. It will install more for next season. In mid-March, Beth Miller, senior associate athletic director for Olympic sports, said she couldn’t say yet how much the increases yielded. “But they’re so far away from becoming self-sustaining that’s not a realistic goal. Our main philosophy with Olympic sports is that we want to put people in the stands and have larger crowds more than it is to generate revenue. But we also want to generate revenue.”

Among state schools with more than 5,000 students, only UNC Greensboro reported a profit from Olympic sports in 2003-04, mostly due to strong baseball and soccer programs. Other North Carolina universities posted wide disparities between revenue and expenses. “If we were actually in the business to generate revenue from these sports, we would all be fired a year ago,” says Chris Kennedy, senior associate athletic director at Duke University.

Kennedy cites the Duke men’s lacrosse team as an example of the uphill battle schools face. Scholarships cost more than $500,000 a year, and then there’s the cost of travel. “Even if you have a sponsorship deal with SDX or someone, it’s going to cost you $800,000 if you want to compete on the ACC or national level.” That’s about $700,000 more than lacrosse generated last year.

Winning helps. Two of the most successful women’s basketball programs, Tennessee and Connecticut, made money in 2003-04, according to financial statements filed with the U.S. Department of Education.

State’s Cobb says baseball and women’s basketball eventually could sustain themselves. The school spent $6 million last year to renovate its baseball field, which should boost attendance. But it’s far from a sure thing. “We’ve got a game tomorrow, and the temperature is supposed to be 39 degrees. Winning obviously helps, but so does nice weather.”