Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Times Are Tough All Over | by Jay

I found this while digging around at the Chronicle of Higher Education's news feed. No comment.

SOUTH BEND, IN -- Shrinking endowments, funding reductions and fewer anticipated enrollees are forcing many colleges and universities to curb development plans and reassess operating budgets. From well-heeled Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Dartmouth to large public institutions such as the California State University system, many schools are facing difficult financial decisions stemming from the nation's economic standstill.

But nowhere is the downturn being felt more acutely than in the world of university sports. With schools trimming their operating costs, sports program budgets are often the first at the chopping block.

However, some schools are looking at innovative--and sometimes controversial--ways at keeping their sports programs afloat, even in a time of reduced revenue and economic troubles.

At the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana--a school renowned for its football and other athletic programs--administrators are looking at fresh ideas to keep sports solvent.

"We have been, for the last few decades, financially very stable in the operation of our sports programs" Notre Dame university spokesman Dennis Storin said. "But the landscape is changing, and we will need to adjust to the realities of the current economic climate."

Notre Dame is betting on a series of cost-cutting measures and new revenue generators--mostly centered around the storied Fighting Irish football program--that athletic department officials say will keep their budgets intact and keep their teams on the field. A department memo delineated some of these proposals:

• Expand the season ticket base by creating more comprehensive packages aimed at corporate clients. "It would mean fewer tickets for our alumni lottery, but if we can sell prime tickets to corporations and businesses, in blocks of 20 or 50, and at a premium above the typical face value, we'd be stupid not to look at it," said Missy Convoy, assistant in the athletic department. "This might entail relocating other season ticket holders and students to less desirable end zone seating, but the revenue you could generate from a corporate base, as opposed to just fans, is hard to ignore."

• Reduce operating costs of football game days. Notre Dame typically spends upwards of $10.5 million to host a Saturday football match. The cost of electricity and lighting alone is "significant" according to a university spokesman, "especially later in the game, when the skies darken and we need to turn on the more than 50,000 field spotlights." On the table is a proposal to move all game starting times to 11:00 AM on game day, so that they will finish in the daylight. An earlier start time would also be necessary to mitigate the increased number of "television timeouts" the department is planning in conjunction with host network NBC, another key source of revenue for the program.

• Travel is a large line item for any sports program's budget, but especially so for Notre Dame, which plays a national schedule of games. Officials are looking into Amtrak and other options to go to New York, Palo Alto, and Los Angeles, hearkening back to the "barnstorming" days of Rockne's Ramblers, when the Irish squads would traverse the country by rail. "With the train, we would probably have to leave on a Wednesday, so we would lose a couple of days of practice each week," said Coach Charlie Weis. "But really, one day of practice should be enough going into the Coliseum." For nearer destinations, such as Ann Arbor, Notre Dame would consider canceling its charter bus service and instituting a series of carpools among players with cars. "Stewart can ride with the Golics in the 'brown betty', and Young and a couple other guys can go with McNeil in his '89 Caprice." No word on who would ride in the middle of the backseat (also known as riding "bitch").

• Another operating cost reduction would be to install an ethanol processing plant at the base of the stadium to power essential facilities, such as the press box, the scoreboard, and the electric flushing in the lavatories. Officials believe that this plant could be fueled in part by the patrons themselves. "Our security patrols confiscate a large amount of illicit alcohol both at the gates to the stadium and in the parking lots before the games, and right now it is just going down the drain," said Kirk Williams, director of security. "We should be using that demon rum for better, greener, and holier purposes."

• The school's marching band, the Band of the Fighting Irish, could be merged with the walk-on program, and band members/tackling dummies could be deployed for a dual purpose. "I don't see why we couldn't have the piccolo section also simulate, say, the Michigan defense for practice that week," said Weis. "They're about the same size." Likewise, walk-on players would fill in the ranks of the Irish band. Current Irish walk-on Tunney O'Hanlon is not pleased by this development. "Does this mean I gotta play a bloody horn? Fer fook's sake...I'm here to hit people, not whistle Too-ra-loo-ra."

• Notre Dame prides itself on its congenial atmosphere at home games, with fans sitting and politely clapping on even the most exuberant of touchdown plays. Still, says head usher Cap'n Gaggy, "some fans have been known to curse or take the Lord's name in vain from time to time. I'm not kidding." Gaggy will be instituting a "swear jar" system at each entrance ramp and thinks that the change gathered will add up to something significant. "Especially if we lose to Boston College again. We might need a bigger jar!"

• Open slots on the Fighting Irish schedule could be sold to potential opponents on popular auction website EBay. Slots would not be limited to actual football teams, however. "For those last couple of games in the year, we could see a company like Xerox or Springfield Nuclear 'buying' the game and turning the day into a marketing bonanza for their company. A football demonstration would be just one event in a lineup of seminars, booths, powerpoint presentations, and trust-building exercises, all sponsored by the host company," said Convoy. "We could be a valuable partner to help you leverage your marketing synergies. It's really what Notre Dame Football™ is all about."

University President Jim Jenks understands that some of these developments will not be popular in all corners of the Notre Dame family. "Look, I understand some people would be rankled by putting reusable Shamwows in the restrooms instead of paper towels, or installing video poker machines on the concourse of the stadium. But these are tough times, and we have to be creative." Jenks would not confirm or deny a controversial proposal to strip the Golden Dome and sell it to Cash4Gold. "Let's just say that I hope it doesn't come to that."

Times are indeed tough all over -- even at Notre Dame.