What others say: Dire times for university sports in Alaska

  • Wednesday, August 24, 2016 4:31pm
  • Opinion

The good news for the University of Alaska as it finds its way forward amid a difficult budget situation is it has options. The bad news is all of them are unpalatable to a broad swath of Alaskans. UA President Jim Johnsen rolled out the framework of his Strategic Pathways plan last week. Though Interior residents had known its effects would be major and far-reaching, many hadn’t prepared for the reality of what the tens of millions of dollars sliced from the university budget would necessitate.

In particular, three options put forth to reduce costs in the university’s athletic departments lay bare how serious those cuts will be. Nearly all options under consideration would result in the end of the Nanooks’ most popular and successful sports teams — rifle, hockey, cross-country running and skiing.

There are three athletics options under consideration by the university. Under the first, the University of Alaska Anchorage and University of Alaska Fairbanks would end all sports. This “nuclear option” would save the university the most money — as much as 5 percent of the overall UA budget — but even the institution’s own materials laying out that plan acknowledge that it would be widely unpopular on and off campus.

The second option would see an unprecedented combined-campus athletics approach in which each campus would retain a few sports, but one campus would be named as the “sponsoring institution.” This plan is most similar in approach to the overall design of the Strategic Pathways plan for academics — a focus on each campus’ respective strengths. In both cases, the devil is in the details. No details have been given about which campuses would be most likely to retain which sports, but it’s easy to make some inferences. It’s hard to see UAA losing basketball or volleyball, given the $110 million stadium the Legislature gifted that campus, which means those sports would likely end at UAF. There would be an easier case for UAF to keep rifle and swimming, because those programs aren’t duplicated at UAA. Hockey and cross-country running and skiing would be the big question marks. Although UAF has the more historic hockey program, the population base in Anchorage and, perhaps more importantly, the legislative power base there could spell curtains for Nanook hockey.

The third option would be for both campuses to drop to D2 status, which would mean the end of hockey, swimming, rifle and cross-country skiing, replacing them with other sports less popular (and more ill-suited climatically) in Alaska: soccer, golf and/or track. An addendum to the third option would have UAF keep its current slate of sports while only making reductions at UAA, but it’s hard to imagine that option being selected, given the Legislature’s commitment to (and, some would say, preference for) that campus. Additionally, each option that would retain more sports would save less money.

It’s an ugly scenario, but the university has been boxed into a corner by increasing costs and decreasing funding allocations from the Legislature. Some have accused the university of proposing such major cuts to athletics solely to generate public outcry, but the facts tell a different story. Simply put, athletics at the university have never been anywhere close to self-supporting. Even with ticket sales and student fees that contribute squarely to sports, programs run a deficit every year. And, unlike other schools where athletics are supported by strong alumni giving, that tradition doesn’t exist in Alaska. It’s difficult to justify major cuts to academic programs while athletics are held harmless, and the university is looking everywhere it can to save money and protect its core offerings.

The situation facing the University of Alaska isn’t a pretty one, and athletics will be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to changes on campus. The bottom line is that where we spend our money is a reflection of our values — the days of getting things we don’t have to pay for are over. If Alaskans want athletics — or any other function — at the university to continue, we’ll have to shoulder that expense.

— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Aug. 19

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