Column: Money matters

Column: Money matters

Four-and-a-half to one. That’s the ratio of how much fellow Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) school Hofstra spends on its baseball team in comparison to what good ol’ Northeastern musters, as of numbers reported last June, from the Office of Postsecondary Education.

The differential of Northeastern sports operating cost figures when compared to other CAA schools is staggering. Disappointing. Deserving of many adjectives carrying negative connotations, really. Northeastern spent a mere $35,432 to run its baseball team last year, while the Hofstra Pride ran on $159,370 in funds.

Looking at other CAA schools, the average seems to work out to around $100,000 per year for each baseball team. Old Dominion, for example, spent just over $96,000 to field its first place, 25-3 (9-0 CAA) squad.

Clearly, this gap needs to narrow. Soon.

These budgets are sure to increase as Northeastern settles into the CAA, but the numbers are not there yet. And, after talking to Athletics Director Dave O’Brien, it doesn’t sound like significant help is on the horizon.

“We certainly hope [these funds will increase], but the university provides a very high percentage of our athletic budget, and so really the impetus is on us in athletics and our fans and alumni who enjoy the athletic program to increase our ability to generate money,” O’Brien said, adding that means his department needs to sell more tickets, move more merchandise and gain more corporate sponsorships to increase the operating budgets.

“Our fan base is growing, our donation base is growing and our corporate sponsorship is growing,” he said. “Therefore, we’re optimistic that in the coming years we’ll have the increased revenues we need to have a more competitive conference operating budget.”

Maybe I’m impatient, but that’s still optimism, and while I think the athletics department has done a great job with what it has to work with, the average Northeastern fan (of which there are apparently too few for sufficient revenue) has to be frustrated on some level. But I suppose funding is never an easy thing to generate.

So, as was said, fan interest plays a huge role in this. Therefore I suppose it’s somewhat of a conundrum as to how this problem can be solved if what’s needed to help mostly comes with the success increased spending provides in the first place.

At this point, you might be wondering if it was normal to only have this much available to spend when NU was in the America East (AE). Well, this isn’t exactly a new problem, just one that’s a bigger issue now. Teams from the AE spent a whole lot more on representing our nation’s pastime, too. The University of Maine spent up to $114,836 for its baseball team last year, more than many CAA schools. So the conference switch can’t be the scapegoat.

The switch is affecting the department’s business, though.

“A little bit,” O’Brien said when asked if it was harder to accommodate traveling costs after moving to a more geographically spread-out conference, “but I think there’s a couple of ways to look at it. Knowing that we would be traveling a little further with our conference schedule, we tried to get our non-conference games closer to home. In addition to that, costs have gone up because of fuel increases, but we feel as though we’re within reasonable proximity of what we expected our travel costs to be.”

So the non-conference schedules are more localized. This isn’t such a bad thing, because playing Boston College and Harvard will draw better crowds on both sides, but it still hurts in compromising some scheduling freedom.

By no means is this only a baseball issue, though. Looking at all the numbers, Northeastern’s operational spending pales in comparison to most schools it competes with in just about every major sport.

To wit: Many CAA schools spend $20,000 or more per athlete in men’s basketball. Upset king George Mason sneaks in right under that mark at $19,762 per player. Northeastern? Exactly $6,431 per player had to suffice in 2004-05. Cool.

It is important to bear in mind, though, as O’Brien said, “It’s always very difficult and problematic how one school reports its numbers compared to another,” but either way it’s clear Northeastern falls behind other schools in its operational spending capacity. O’Brien did confirm, at least, that the numbers NU reports do not include scholarships, of which in baseball he said the Huskies have six to seven full scholarships available that “can be broken apart and given out partially.” He said the NCAA maximum is “just under 12” full scholarships. Half that translates to a fairly reasonable total, although for a program with a plus like playing the Red Sox now, it may be looking a bit scant.

All in all, NU’s total athletics operating costs amount to just over $1 million – seemingly a lot of money. But Springfest this year is costing about a quarter of that by itself. Doesn’t seem like so much anymore, does it?

I could go on and on and give example after example of just gross comparisons between Northeastern and its competing schools (yes, even Merrimack’s hockey program edges NU). I realize these numbers don’t mean everything, but when a school is that far off the mark, it raises some questions.

I mean, don’t you, as an in-some-way-Northeastern-affiliated person (because you’re reading this) feel somehow smaller or more unimportant on some level?

Really, it’s a wonder O’Brien and his staff have been able to run the program on these funds and keep some teams competitive. The university holds back on full athletic scholarships for some in order to focus more on academics – which is fine – but part of being a Top 100 school is having that campus unity and pride a good sports program can bring. And, really, having the school play in the Colonial Athletic Association and the Hockey East isn’t worth the upturn of an eyebrow from a prospective student unless winning is also taking place.

Good things are happening at Northeastern. George Mason making the Final Four means a bunch of extra dough (and notoriety) for the conference. Jose Juan Barea will likely be playing professional basketball next year. Northeastern baseball plays the Boston Red Sox at spring training every season.

These are great, marketable facets of NU sports. The school needs to seize the momentum it has in its athletic growth and beef up these programs to afford to recruit the players that are now going to be interested in coming here for these reasons.

But this all should have started years ago. Now both hockey teams are in shambles, both basketball teams have lost their stars (Barea and Maralene Zwarich), the football team can’t even be mediocre in Division 1-AA and the baseball team, despite some good prospects, remains just above .500. Are Husky sports fans expected to be satisfied by a strong field hockey team that just missed the cut to play in the NCAA tournament? I surely hope not.

Even after research, I’m not sure who’s at fault here. Admittedly, there’s a lot that goes into this sort of thing I’m not privy to.

Athletics needs to be spotted money in this crucial time in some way, even if the university already pays for most of the operating costs. A lot of that comes directly from the students in the athletic fee. Supposedly much of that is being saved for an on-campus football stadium (hopefully also hosting baseball), which is a good step, but again, a team’s success is more important than its situation.

If it takes a reputable consultant or anything along those lines, funds at Northeastern need to be allocated more efficiently and with less red tape separating money. Because if one thing’s for sure, I’d much rather see the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on this year’s Springfest used to beef up the athletics program. Why not sustain entertainment over the whole year rather than waste it all on one night only a portion of the student body can enjoy?

– Tim Coughlin can be reached at [email protected]

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