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A hard road for student athletes

Crowds are small, trips are long, budgets are tight

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 CAN you help Colleen Dufresne?

Can you possibly find a cheaper way to get 50 very large young men and enormous heaps of equipment to Vancouver, put them up for the night halfway decently, and feed these eating machines, all for less than $30,000?

Whomever pays calls the shots

Ideas to change university sports, raise money, survive the campus financial crises across Canada?

Dufresne says universities are looking closely at Laval University, which has set up a separate board to run each of its sports and make each team responsible for raising its own money.

Laval's football team's budget is more than half of what U of M spends in its entire varsity program, she said.

Reid pointed out that the University of Regina operates its football program as a separate entity, and that when the University of Calgary cut several sports, the alumni stepped in and kept those teams going.

But Canadians also see the excesses and abuses in the U.S., where wealthy grads and boosters contribute millions to their teams, and are often accused of providing less-than-academically-qualified students with money under the table to play at their school.

When universities allow others to run their teams, said Dufresne, "Basically, who's calling the shots?"

U of W has more than doubled the sponsors financially supporting the athletic programs. U of M is holding fundraising dinners for each team, successful to the point that Bisons golf covers its own bills.

Reducing travel is tossed around, but schools in British Columbia don't want to cut Canada West in half. Playing closer to home against community colleges, private schools, or even American schools doesn't appear feasible or practical, officials say.

That's what it costs University of Manitoba athletic director Dufresne every time she sends the football Bisons to Vancouver for a game.

And that's with a travel agent working the seat sale market to keep down the price, says Dufresne.

 

Her University of Winnipeg counterpart Doran Reid spends $18,000 to $28,000 to take two basketball or two volleyball teams to Vancouver and Victoria. Down the road, Brandon University AD Kirk De Fazio has to come up with that much cash plus another $1,000 each way for a bus to get to Winnipeg for the flight west.

Manitoba's universities are running varsity sports on a shoestring.

And with university presidents warning that financial doom and gloom are approaching, athletic directors know that they'll have to come up with more money from somewhere, anywhere, or face the loss of programs.

"We're facing a significant cut for 2010-11. Within Bison Sports, I'm looking to find $150,000," said Dufresne.

U of M has previously dropped wrestling. Could one or more other sports go?

Dufresne took a long pause: "I think it's a possibility. We'd be doing everything we can to maintain the sports we have."

Across Canadian campuses, said Reid, "It's an ongoing battle. Now, the campus is in trouble, athletics is in trouble."

U of W and BU run only four teams each, men's and women's volleyball and basketball. But U of M has 16 teams, also offering hockey, golf, cross country, track and field, swimming and women's soccer. The only available sports U of M lacks are wrestling, men's soccer, field hockey and women's rugby.

"If we drop a sport, other than volleyball and basketball, it won't be offered in the province of Manitoba," said Dufresne.

By far the biggest burden for our university teams is travel. The Canada West conference covers four provinces just to have enough teams, forcing schools to travel from Victoria to Winnipeg, with stops in between in Calgary, Edmonton, Regina and Saskatoon. Depending on the sport, there are also Brandon, Lethbridge and the B.C. interior.

The Wesmen and Bisons bus to Regina, but most trips to Saskatoon are by air. The BU Bobcats bus to Sakatoon and Regina.

But most of the time, BU goes east to go west.

"That is a terrible, horrible experience. I'm losing academic time -- we lose $2,000 getting to the airport," said De Fazio, who decries Brandon's not having major airline service.

"When we play Friday and Saturday, we use Thursday to fly, so we lose academic time. This is a terrible location in which to survive," De Fazio said.

Bottom line, U of W needs $800,000 from the university each year, and Brandon needs about $600,000.

"Our budget is $3.4 million," said Dufresne, of which 41 per cent comes from the university, 31 per cent from the province funnelled through Sport Manitoba, and 28 from the Active Living Centre -- money raised by membership fees and program registration, ranging from people running in The Grotto to kids taking swimming lessons.

Endowment funds and sponsors cover a portion of student-athletes' scholarships, but forget about dreams of a free ride.

Bison Sports can put about $425,000 a year into scholarships to cover a portion of tuition for some student-athletes -- emphasis on portion, emphasis on some. Ideally, Dufresne would like to have endowment funds to provide operating money.

"We don't provide scholarships for all athletes," said Dufresne. "We have 125 kids on the track team, we have 80 on our football team."

Hefty endowment funds provide full tuition and ancillary fees for U of M's varsity volleyball players, but they're the exception.

U of W's endowment funds can usually cover tuition and fees for 54 student-athletes, but they've taken a market hit, Reid said. Normally, "That's a godsend for us in terms of recruiting."

More money goes to 'blue chip' athletes, he said, and each student-athlete gets two pairs of athletic shoes each year.

U of W does provide a full ride in tuition and ancillary fees if you've been an Academic All-Canadian with an average of 80 per cent or higher the previous year, even if you're stuck at the end of the bench. "It costs us money, but it's a good thing, because it puts the emphasis on academics," said Reid.

At BU, says De Fazio, there really aren't a whole lot of endowment funds.

As for facilities in Brandon.....

The March 19 announcement that BU's long-awaited new $18 million gymnasium and wellness complex brought joy to the campus.

"Our gymnasium hasn't been upgraded since 1965. We are the oldest gym in the country -- it's a travesty out here," De Fazio lamented. As good as Bobcats teams can be, the old gym can't seat 1,000 spectators. And with a ceiling only 24 feet high, it's a 'dungeon' for volleyball and basketball, he said.

Expansion of teams and sports in this economic climate?

Don't laugh.

Reid eagerly follows the news about Gordon Bell High School's new athletic field and green space, barely two blocks from the campus's new science complex. If Gordon Bell can fit a soccer pitch in the space, the Wesmen would think seriously about varsity soccer, he said.

Dufresne would love to have men's soccer, but there's no money, and it would throw off the gender balance that's tough enough to achieve with having no women's equivalent of football.

Then there's hockey.

The ADs tell horror stories about schools that are into six figures each year just for sticks.

Reid says hockey is even more expensive than football -- two teams of 25 each, more games, more travel.

U of W president Lloyd Axworthy has mused about men's and women's hockey, which Reid said would cost $600,000 a year to run, far more to start up, especially with no arena on campus. BU dropped hockey in 2001.

"Currently, our stick budget is minimal," less than $40,000 a year, said Dufresne. "Our skate budget is non-existent; we fundraise for skates."

Men coming from the Western Hockey League are accustomed to their teams' supplying top-of-the-line skates each year, though women have much lower equipment expectations, she said.

Further complicating the financial picture is the prospect of doubling the number of universities in Canada West. In their wisdom, the B.C. and Alberta governments have given seven colleges university status, and they all want to join Canada West.

There could be eight universities just in B.C. playing in Canada West, and 16 schools by next year playing basketball, said Dufresne. The B.C. schools are adamant that they don't want to form a separate division, they want to play Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

That would potentially be 30 basketball games home and away -- 20 games currently are already tough enough on academic time, said De Fazio.

Dufresne can't see having a balanced schedule with every school playing each other home and away. Too many games, too much lost academic time: "We are looking at future possibilities for Canada West, and what that might look like. It's difficult to meet the needs of everyone -- it's impossible to make everyone happy."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

 

Teams bring profile, but not many fans 

So just who cares about university varsity sports?

Not the student body, apparently, which all three Manitoba universities say studiously ignores high-quality competition and low-price entertainment right under its nose.

But hundreds of student-athletes certainly value being able to continue their high school and club activities at the university level, not to mention keeping active, having a social structure within university, and seeing a lot of the country.

University of Winnipeg athletic director Doran Reid says that his school's decision to excel in two sports and regularly contend for national championships, brings U of W tremendous profile.

Brandon University AD Kirk De Fazio said that he'd heard of BU long before he ever set foot in Brandon, thanks primarily to the men's basketball team's reaching the nationals 17 years in a row.

The professors' union has no problems with the relatively small amount of money spent on varsity sports, said Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

"Having sporting activities is a useful part of a university education," he said.

Families certainly value university sports, especially if the kids in the family play that sport at a school and club level, and want to watch their sport played at a very high level.

"The fan base is not students from our campus; we view that as a problem," said University of Manitoba AD Colleen Dufresne. "We've focused this year on groups, and this year has seen great success with the program. People don't understand the level of entertainment and competition there actually is."

An $8 ticket is cheap for four hours of entertainment watching some of the best teams in the country, Reid said. "We've put it out that we're affordable family entertainment."

Club teams can come to watch, and possibly win a set of uniforms. Unlike U of M, the Wesmen control concessions and souvenirs, Reid pointed out.

"We've targeted Winnipeg families -- we've always struggled with U of W students," said Reid, who hopes the Wesmen can attract students in the new campus residence.

U of M Students Union already buys season passes for the 1,200 students in residence, and hopes to find a sponsor or two to foot the bill so every U of M student can have a free pass to all varsity sports, said UMSU president Sid Rashid.

"We have some amazing athletes -- they don't get the recognition they deserve," Rashid said. "We've been working very closely with Bison Sports."

UMSU holds Brown and Gold Fridays promoting that weekend's home games, anyone found wearing team colours gets prizes.

And UMSU provides a scholarship of $1,000 for the top man and woman in each sport.

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2010 H1

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