With its sports teams regularly traveling to post-season championship games and tournaments, Southern Oregon University finds itself dealing with too much of a good thing — at least financially — as its Athletic Department faces a $1.2 million deficit.
SOU has never experienced this level of sports success, so has never had the need to build a reserve fund. Now it will, said Mark Denney, associate vice president of budgets and planning.
Post-season playoffs are costing the university about $500,000 annually; the hope is to begin paying down the debt while creating a reserve fund in the school’s budget to handle about two years of playoff expenses.
The deficit started building three years ago, and comes from success in many sports, not just football, said SOU Athletic Director Matt Sayre, who took on the school's top athletic post in 2010. He ticked off a list of post-season teams, including football, men's and women's cross-country, women’s soccer and volleyball, wrestling, men's and women’s basketball, and men's and women’s indoor track and field. In the last two seasons, the football teams' seedings meant they had to travel for more games, he said.
“Since 2012, it’s all gone off the charts,” said Sayre, noting that was compounded by SOU’s financial difficulties, which meant the university couldn’t provide much help. The university is emerging from a retrenchment process that involved significant cuts in faculty, classes and majors to save $6 million a year.
SOU's football team won the national championship in 2014 and made it to the finals in 2015 before losing. Both finals games were played in Florida.The football team also plays in the Frontier Conference, with five of the eight teams in Montana and a sixth in Idaho. The only in-state school is Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande.
The women's volleyball team qualified for the national championships in 2014 and 2015, both times traveling to Sioux City, Iowa. The cross country teams are perennial powers, advancing to nationals in Kansas and North Carolina in the past two years.
SOU teams currently wrapping up their seasons offer insight into why the bills are piling up: Both its men's and women's basketball teams are in the NAIA national championships, with both playing this week in Missouri. Eight members of its wrestling team traveled to Topeka, Kansas, last week to compete in that sport's national championships. Members of the school's track and field teams were in Johnson City, Tenn., last week for the NAIA Indoor Track & Field Championships.
“It’s difficult to predict if a specific team is going to have to travel to playoffs,” said Sayre, who was the football team's offensive coordinator starting in 1998. "It used to be about $65,000 to pay for it, and it was static for 15 years, and if we went over, we would go to the student fee committee for help.
“It’s a dilemma. You’ve got these great teams and we’re trying to find a mechanism to fund our post-season travel with,” he added. He noted that athletes also do considerable fundraising for teams.
“It doesn’t work to say we’re just not going to the playoffs.”
Recent athletic success, said Sayre, comes from “reinventing” the department with investment in character values, including academic excellence, “fantastic coaches,” a focus on integrity and respect, community service and “doing the right thing, even when no one’s around.”
While the success comes with an expense, there's also a payoff. Sayre noted the changes have spurred school spirit and led to a graduation rate for student-athletes that’s twice that of other students. Ticket sales have tripled over the last three years and sports success has helped with SOU's improved enrollment.
SOU athletic teams lost their workout and competition spaces with the demolition and reconstruction of McNeal Pavilion and have had to rent space from nearby Ashland High School, but costs have been reasonable and did not contribute much to the deficit, said Sayre. The increased income from tickets has helped offset that cost, he adds.
Getting on track financially is not a process of coming up with the full $1.2 million at once, but rather, said Denney, putting together a balanced budget that identifies revenue sources that aren’t being used for other purposes. It could mean building reserves while paying off the deficit over many years, he said.
The issue has been presented to the SOU Board of Trustees, and a course of action will be voted on in the June meeting for the 2016-17 budget, he noted.
Bill Thorndike, chairman of the Board of Trustees, said the board is "certainly aware" of the funding situation but also recognizes the successes of the program.
"Not only are our athletic programs successful, but, generally speaking, the student-athletes are successful as students," he said. " ... Unfortunately, to compete at a national level requires a lot of travel expenses."
Thorndike said the success generates enthusiasm in the community as well as on campus. And that could in turn help the financial situation.
"Historically, athletics is a vehicle that people can get behind with their giving and underwriting," Thorndike said.
Denney said that while the deficit needs to be corrected, it is not an insurmountable crisis.
“In the big scheme of things,” Denney said, “it’s not a large problem. It is one we haven’t experienced before because we haven’t had that type of success. I’m confident we’ll find a solution."
—John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.