The News Journal | by Kevin Tresolini
Four years after new president Dennis Assanis and athletic director Chrissi Rawak pledged to make University of Delaware sports teams bigger winners, UD’s financial investment in athletics is among the national front-runners while Blue Hen teams often remain Colonial Athletic Association also-rans.
Delaware’s expenditures on athletics are second-highest among schools in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, data analysis reveals.
Only conference rival James Madison spends more, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics’ financial information database.
James Madison has won a league-high 17 conference championships the last four years, 10 more than Delaware.
Furthermore, when looking at all NCAA Division I schools, including those in the highest level, the Football Bowl Subdivision, Delaware ranks 70th nationally in operating expenses and fourth in terms of how much of its athletic support is drawn from institutional/government resources. That’s among 230 public schools in statistics compiled by USA Today.
Little Delaware isn’t such a lightweight, apparently, when it comes to splurging on sports in a bid to become more relevant in its conference and even nationally. Delaware allocates a greater amount of university-derived money toward athletics than most schools.
Blue Hens teams did begin to turn the corner in 2019-20, logging a 147-99-4 record before the coronavirus pandemic forced a premature end to winter and spring athletics in March.
The $38.23 million in athletic funding that came directly from the institution in 2017-18, the most recent school year for which information is available, was considerably more than any of Delaware’s FCS counterparts, according to the Knight Commission.
Next, were conference football rivals Rhode Island ($20.48 million) and Stony Brook ($17.22 million).
“They stand out because there was an investment,” Rawak said of those financial figures. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, especially if we are producing.”
But is that investment too significant?
Only one FBS athletic program received more in government/institutional support – the United States Air Force Academy ($39.8 million), according to the Knight Commission’s 2017-18 data.
The subject came up last fall at a UD Board of Trustees’ committee on student life and athletics summit. Meeting minutes describe “a robust discussion” on the topic of spending “finite” resources on athletics and concerns about “the potential return” on the investment.
It was initiated by Matt Robinson, head of the UD sport management program who had been interim athletic director in the first half of 2016 before Rawak’s hiring. Robinson had raised concerns about the university’s considerable subsidization of athletics with Rawak during the meeting.
While acknowledging the discussion took place, Robinson, who is also UD Faculty Senate president, preferred not to comment further on the topic when recently asked by The News Journal.
Assanis had responded to Robinson’s concerns by expressing that he and other university presidents share the wish “to elevate their institutions through success in athletics,” meeting minutes reported.
Surely, sports accomplishments are attention-getters that can fuel enrollment and fund-raising, though UD’s strong academic reputation and picturesque campus have long been powerful lures in their own right.
Rawak described athletics as ‘a window to the broader public” that could “drive the success of the entire university,” according to Board of Trustees meeting minutes.
But college athletics is also a costly venture.
Division I schools away from the Power Five bloc, which includes the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC and Pac-12 with their lucrative TV packages and wealthy donors, have a particularly difficult time finding outside funding sources.
The coronavirus crisis has cast additional light on those high costs and athletic spending often viewed as frivolous, such as coaches’ salaries, staffing, scheduling and travel, especially from far-flung conference alignment. It has forced many to rethink their approaches and ensure spending is efficient and frugal.
In April, UD announced the pandemic had left it with a $65 million overall budget shortfall because of the switch to online learning after students were sent home and all university events were canceled in mid-March.
Athletic financial losses were not severe but certainly impactful, Rawak suggested. The only cuts announced so far affecting athletics have been some part-time positions. Staff development, travel and scheduling are areas where budgets will be trimmed, Rawak said.
The basketball teams staying overnight at hotels before games at nearby Drexel and Towson and the football team sleeping in a hotel the night before home games are potential cost-cutting targets. This fall, the soccer, volleyball and field hockey teams are playing fewer games that involve significantly less travel.
“We’re in a different time now,” Rawak said of COVID-19’s impact on college athletics and the need to adjust.
A slew of Division I schools have recently dropped sports: Old Dominion (wrestling); Cincinnati (men’s soccer); Furman (baseball and men’s lacrosse); Central Michigan (men’s track and field); Akron (men’s cross country, men’s golf, women’s tennis); East Carolina (men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s swimming); Florida International (men’s indoor track); Appalachian State (men’s soccer, men’s indoor and outdoor track and men’s tennis); Wright State (men’s and women’s tennis and softball); Connecticut (men’s cross country, swimming and tennis and women’s rowing); and Brown (11 sports). Before those cuts, Brown’s 38 teams were more than any school nationally except Harvard and Stanford.
Except for FCS-level Furman and Brown and non-football playing Wright State, all are FBS schools in Group of Five conferences. Commissioners from that collection of leagues, which do not reap the economic windfall of Power Five schools, recently requested a reduction in the NCAA requirement that they field a minimum of 16 teams. The NCAA Division I Council denied it.
Delaware, which fields 21 athletic teams, had $44.32 million in athletic funding and expenses in the most recent 2017-18 fiscal review, according to the Knight Commission, including that $38.23 million in university backing. The $44.32 million was the figure that ranked 70th nationally in USA Today’s accounting.
By contrast, 34 football-playing schools from the FBS Mid-American Conference, Conference USA and Sun Belt Conference – all in that Group of Five — had lower operating expenses on athletics than Delaware, including sport-killers Central Michigan, Akron, FIU and Appalachian State.
FBS schools may award 85 football scholarships compared to 63 for FCS schools such as Delaware, a significant additional expense.
Rawak, however, dismissed the Knight Commission math, claiming it gives a false impression that, she said, makes Delaware stand out more than it should in relation to its Division I peers.
For example, she said, sports medicine operates out of the Carpenter Center and is counted as part of the funding supporting athletics but is actually overseen by UD Student Health.
She also said some schools do not count the significant cost of athletic facility groundskeeping, as Delaware does, in figures given to the Knight Commission.
“How everybody counts money is very different,” she said, including scholarships in those accounting variances. “It creates more questions.”
The Knight Commission, founded in 1989, is a panel of experts in education and athletics that aims to ensure college sports function within the academic framework of the institutions. The Collegiate Athletics Financial Information Database aims to improve the accountability of public Division I institutions by making their spending and earning more transparent.
“I would guarantee you there are a lot of universities that are supported the way we are but they don’t count it so it’s not an accurate interpretation,” Rawak said, adding that includes fellow Colonial Athletic Association members.
In an email response to questions, Amy Perko, the Knight Commission’s chief executive officer, wrote that “the NCAA has made changes over the years to improve definitions and comparability but there may continue to be differences in how institutions report the data.”
“That said,” she added, “these audited reports represent the most accurate athletics financial reports available and the data are used by the NCAA to produce ‘dashboard metrics’ that institutional leaders use to assess their athletic programs’ financial health. These institutional data are rarely seen by the public.”
The Knight Commission employs financial data that schools are required to submit to the NCAA that is “subject to agreed-upon procedures performed by a qualified independent accountant,” according to the commission, and approved by university presidents or chancellors.
Perko added that “the Knight Commission has always believed that — at their best — intercollegiate sports provide important educational opportunities for college athletes and benefits for the entire university community. We also believe that more effective disclosure of finances — and of financial priorities — will enhance the long-term prospects of college sports by ensuring they remain part of, not apart from, the core mission of universities.’’
Major increase in athletic spending
Whatever differences there may be between how schools do their accounting, there is no doubt Delaware has seen a huge increase in athletic expenditures and university support since Assanis and Rawak appeared in the spring of 2016.
For the 2015-16 school year, the last before they arrived, Delaware had $34.31 million in athletics funding, with $28.05 million, or 82 percent, coming from UD coffers.
In just two years, Delaware’s annual spending on athletics increased $10 million, all provided by the university.
“I was looking for the best person to take the athletics program here to the next level,” Assanis said when Rawak was hired. “ … The first thing we need to be is the best within the [Colonial Athletic Association].”
Rawak, who came to Delaware from the University of Michigan, was determined to build a stronger foundation upon which championship seasons could be constructed. Assanis provided the financial resources, with the Board of Trustees’ support.
“If you were to look at each of the different programs and how they’ve achieved, my answer would be ‘Yes,’ ” Rawak said when asked if Delaware was making good on that investment. “They’re all in different places.”
In that Board of Trustees committee on student life and athletics meeting, Rawak described her intentions to make Delaware a “Cinderella story” in college athletics, suggesting the Blue Hens had to rise from wretched depths to reach championship heights. It’s why her strategic plan for athletics is entitled “Project Glass Slipper.”
In actuality, Delaware seems miscast for that role.
The Blue Hens have hardly been viewed by collegiate counterparts as forlorn or deserving pity, despite the ups and downs of their teams, making the rags-to-riches fairy-tale comparison suspect. Delaware has often been held in high regard by sporting peers, though many would agree that its teams could fare better overall in the conference.
In the few years before Rawak came, UD women’s basketball teams, thanks to Elena Delle Donne’s presence, went to the 2012 and 2013 NCAA tournaments. Their male counterparts followed in 2014.
Men’s soccer, having not reached NCAA play since 1970, made the 2011 and 2013 NCAA brackets. Field hockey began its run of CAA titles and NCAA berths in 2013. Women’s track won the 2014 CAA title.
Before that, the football team reached national title games in 2003, 2007 and 2010, winning the first. Men’s lacrosse was in four NCAA tournaments from 2005-11, including a Final Four appearance in 2007; and volleyball made four NCAA trips from 2007-11.
But to enhance its championship chances, Delaware has spent more.
“It’s allowing us to do something really special here for what I believe is a really special place and has the ability to achieve,” Rawak said.
JMU, which has five fewer teams and 100 less athletes than Delaware, had $51.72 million in funding for 2017-18 with $41.7 million from institutional/government sources, most from mandatory fees imposed on students.
The USA Today data reveals FBS members Air Force Academy ($40.2 million) and Connecticut ($39 million) as the only others allocating more university-derived funds for athletics than Delaware.
Delaware receives 86.25 percent of its athletic funding from the university, ranking it ninth among the 230 Division I schools in the USA Today compilation. Among the eight ahead of Delaware was CAA rival Towson (87.17 percent).
Though it comes under the heading of “institutional/government support,” UD officials insist the university, not state taxpayers, provides the economic sustenance for Blue Hens sports. The Senate Joint Finance Committee approved $125 million in 2020-21 annual funding for UD on June 5.
State Rep. John Kowalko, whose 25th district includes UD’s campus, doubts the contention that taxpayer dollars are not being used to support athletics.
“I’m saying, ‘Prove it,’ ” Kowalko said. “That money could be intermingled dramatically . . . Until they agree they are willing to support the repeal of their FOIA, so I can look at these numbers, I don’t believe them.”
Kowalko was referring to the University of Delaware being exempt from state records laws, including most Freedom of Information Act requests. That means the university does not need to provide the public with details of its accounting.
“I believe that they are co-mingling taxpayer money,” Kowalko added, suggesting some operational dollars from the state likely do support athletics. “It’s the same pot of soup.”
In response to a FOIA request submitted by The News Journal seeking more data on athletic funding, UD associate vice president and deputy general counsel Jennifer M. Becnel-Guzzo wrote the “athletic department is not supported with public funds. Therefore, the university has no public records responsive to your request.”
While one UD athletic official did compare Delaware’s institutional funding to those required student fees charged at JMU and many other schools, such as UConn, Rawak said that is not correct.
She said athletic funding comes from general university resources that are drawn from various reserves but that students and their families are “not paying for athletics.”
Delaware also spent $11.77 million on athletic aid for its 600-plus student-athletes in 2017-18, according to the Knight Report. That’s roughly $20,000 per student-athlete.
UD’s $1.4 billion endowment does not pay for athletics and is presently not a viable source, Rawak said. But endowing components of athletics as a funding mechanism is a goal, she added.
Tuition and fees have typically risen about four percent annually for UD students, increasing $600 to $14,280 for in-state undergraduates in 2019-20 and $1,400 to $35,710 for their out-of-state counterparts.
“We don’t use that to fund athletics,” Rawak said, adding that the university has numerous income sources beyond student payments.
David Ridpath, an Ohio University sports management professor, agrees that “athletic programs at colleges and universities have value.” He is president of the board of directors for the Drake Group, which has a mission “to defend academic integrity in higher education from the corrosive aspects of commercialized college sports.”
“But that value is often overstated and used as an excuse to spend more,” he told The News Journal, “such as when apologists claim that athletic success influences enrollment, donations, etc. when the evidence on that is mixed at best.
“So it becomes a perpetual cycle of trying to be something you are not, and chasing someone else who is likely spending money they don’t have. A school can have a successful athletic program without continuing to spend more and more where likely the end game is exactly the same as when they started.”
Changing to spur success
Part of Rawak’s efforts to improve UD athletic fortunes has included changing head coaches in 12 of Delaware’s 21 varsity sports.
The seven conference titles Delaware has won since Rawak came – three in field hockey (2016, 2017 and 2019) and one each in men’s soccer (2016), baseball (2017), women’s golf (2017) and women’s outdoor track and field (2019) – were all by teams with head coaches who were here before Rawak’s arrival.
In 2016, Delaware also won the NCAA field hockey title.
“If you were to look at the successes of our programs, collectively, all of them, one of the things to recognize is, Rome wasn’t built in a day,” said Rawak, who is frequently lauded by staff for her positive approach and leadership. “It takes time.”
The 2019-20 school year was, by far, Delaware’s most successful recently from a won-loss standpoint before the shutdown.
The previous three, Blue Hen squads went 189-188-2 in 2016-17, 170-184-6 in 2017-18 and 162-200-3 last year. Along with that CAA women’s track title, the 2018-19 season did feature the return to the national rankings by the men’s lacrosse team.
The 147-99-4 record in 2019-20 was a dramatic improvement and likely reflected some new coaches reaping the benefits of their programs getting re-established.
In addition to more field hockey success, this school year featured a 22-11 record in men’s basketball, its best in six seasons; Women’s soccer had its highest finish, second place, in 18 Colonial Athletic Association seasons and most wins (12) since 1994; Women’s cross country was a best-ever second in the CAA meet; Men’s tennis was 14-1 with a chance at the winningest season in school history when it ended prematurely; Softball was 19-4, equaling its best start ever, at the time spring sports were halted.
Other sports, however, such as football – long the university’s pride and joy – and women’s basketball, struggled to regain past glories.
After ending a seven-year NCAA football playoff absence in 2018, Delaware went 5-7 last fall, its third under coach Danny Rocco. Despite a veteran lineup, women’s basketball was 12-17 under third-year coach Natasha Adair.
Among recent athletic upgrades at Delaware have been devoting more resources toward sports such as swimming, tennis, golf, cross country and track, which were once designated as “low-tier.” Tennis players often supplied their own rackets and runners received just one pair of shoes for a season.
Much of Rawak’s approach has gone toward adding staff positions aimed at supporting the athletic mission, such as in heath-, media-, academic- and leadership-related positions.
In 2015-16, Delaware spent $3.65 million on support and administrative compensation, according to the Knight Commission. Two years later, that figure had nearly doubled to $6.8 million.
The UD staff directory on BlueHens.com recently listed 219 positions, including 14 involved with recreation programs and intramural activities at Carpenter Sports Building on central campus.
In contrast, several FBS schools that are close to Delaware in terms of spending list far fewer, such as Conference USA’s Old Dominion (166), Mountain West member Wyoming (186) and the MAC’s Buffalo (193).
The University of Delaware does not reveal salaries of its coaches or athletic administrators, even though some are among the First State’s highest-paid employees.
In doing so, UD cites its status as a state-assisted yet privately chartered and governed institution. Taxpayer dollars do typically account for roughly 10 percent of the university’s annual operating budget.
The university’s IRS form 990, which is made public, does list the highest compensated employees.
It is known that Rocco was the third-highest paid UD employee in 2017, according to the most recently available IRS 990, with total compensation of $609,167. Rawak ranked seventh at $480,046.
Both have taken five-percent pay cuts, along with Adair and men’s basketball coach Martin Ingelsby, as part of COVID-19 money-saving measures.
Ridpath, the Ohio University professor, termed Delaware’s institutional and government support “a significant amount of money that could have been used for other things to support the educational mission, but Delaware made a choice.”
But was it the right choice?
“For Delaware, that is pretty high of an amount,” Ridpath said. “There are many disadvantages, not the least of which is aptly explained as robbing Peter to pay Paul. I don’t think some funding like this is inherently bad but this amount is too much considering where the money is coming from.
“… The real danger is schools like Delaware that don’t generate enough revenue [income] still increasing spending. The question is why and how that impacts university?”
New financial sources surface
The huge financial impact athletics has on a college is not new.
In his 1918 tome “The Higher Learning in America,” economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote: “College sports come in for ever increasing attention and take an increasingly prominent and voluminous place in the university’s life.”
He warned, collegiate athletics was “earnestly pushed by the businesslike authorities” even though, he added, “it is the most widely out of touch with all learning.”
These are modern-day arguments as well, though UD athletes tend to perform better academically than their counterparts. Ten teams had perfect scores in 2018-19 in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate, which measures academic eligibility and retention of scholarship athletes over a four-year period.
In the introduction to his 2019 book, Intercollegiate Athletics, Inc., George Mason University economics and public policy professor James T. Bennett wrote that collegiate athletic programs have become “gargantuan, taxpayer-supported spectacles that now dominate many public universities.”
Of Delaware pulling so much of its athletic revenue from institutional sources, Bennett said, “That’s not revenue at all. Revenues come from ticket sales and paraphernalia sales. This isn’t revenue.”
It’s actually a subsidy that’s granted, in this case, by the university.
“The whole thing is a scam, very candidly,” Bennett said. “I mean, what’s the purpose of the university? I thought it was education.”
“Highest-paid guy is some loser coach. What does it say about priorities? Spending tens of million dollars on programs with zero academic value. This is unheard of throughout Europe and the rest of the world. Think of how you could divert that money.”
Delaware has shown the potential to tap into other monetary resources, however.
One of Delaware’s biggest victories off the field in recent years, for all to see, did come in fund-raising, though there was a substantial cost to the university as well.
In a campaign separate from normal athletic support involving capital funds, UD contributed $25 million toward the $60 million project to refurbish the west grandstand of Delaware Stadium and build the adjoining Whitney Athletic Center.
The other $35 million was raised through private donations, including a $10 million gift from 1980 graduate and former UD golf team member Ken Whitney and his wife Elizabeth. The nearly two-year project is slated to be concluded late this summer.
The easy transmission of coronavirus between people, which has led to social-distancing standards, jeopardizes the immediate future of crowded assemblies and the financial rewards that come with them, however. Delaware has not yet announced how it will handle or limit football crowds this season.
UD has other facility improvements it would like to tackle, including updating the east stands at Delaware Stadium and a complete modernization of the window-less Delaware Field House. The Delaware Stadium/Whitney Athletic Center project demonstrated there are potential outside financial resources for athletics.
“The fund-raising we did here,” Rawak said during a tour of Delaware Stadium, “was a significantly positive sign that people believe in the vision and are invested in it.”
Officials also visualize Delaware Stadium as a greater potential revenue generator by using it as a site for large-scale events, much the way the Carpenter Center is a setting for concerts, graduations and other gatherings beyond UD games. Placing a temporary public ice-skating rink inside Delaware Stadium in the winter, for instance, and even playing hockey games there has been proposed.
The athletic department received just $710,000 from donor contributions in 2017-18, below the FCS median, according to the Knight Commission.
With the exception of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities, most FCS schools had a larger percentage of their revenue from those sources than Delaware.
In marked contrast, perennial FCS football champ North Dakota State pulled in $6.7 million in donor contributions, CAA rival William & Mary secured $5.8 million, Missouri State enticed $4.7 million, football power Montana State raised $4.2 million and JMU had $2.5 million.
With schools having to rein in athletic costs because of COVID-19’s impact, Delaware faces a stiff challenge in its continued effort to improve its sports fortunes while also being fiscally fit and tuned in to important social issues.
“I don’t resent that fact that they are trying to make major sports programs prominent for this university,” Kowalko said, “but is it at the cost of academics? Is it at the cost of integrating the school when they talk about diversity?”