Wichita State Shockers

1986: WSU sports budget an annual thorn

Lew Perkins
Lew Perkins The Wichita Eagle

On a stale May morning between semesters, Henry Levitt Arena smells like what it is - an old gymnasium decked with gray lint and cobwebs.

A cockroach toddles over the worn carpet in Mike Strickland’s office.

The man in charge of Wichita State’s athletic budget ignores the insect, lost in his troubled sports cathedral’s more important problems.

“Let me tell you, it’s no fun to see your budget cut every year,” says Strickland, WSU’s associate athletic director in charge of finances. “Our only advice to the staff is be creative.”

Financially, WSU’s athletic program is a bust. The list of ledger-sheet emergencies is long, and growing longer:

* WSU’s sports program - a $4.1 million-a-year operation - is $798,000 in the hole. Deficit spending - borrowing from next year’s budget to pay this year’s bills - is a way of life at the sports business office in the arena.

* Men’s basketball - the only profitable operation among WSU’s 16 sports - is suffering from declining attendance. Home attendance last season was 19 percent lower than in the 1981-1982 season, for instance. As a result, revenues from ticket sales are dropping, too. Ticket sales in fiscal 1986 totaled roughly $804,000, down about 11 percent from 1985’s $903,000.

* Financial sanctions and probations by the National Collegiate Athletic Association have cost WSU an estimated $1 million or more in lost revenue from post-season tournament appearances and televised games.

* Former basketball coach Gene Smithson says the university owes him about $450,000 for firing him without a legal cause, and may take his case to court. Athletic officials aren’t saying where they would get the money to buy out Smithson’s contract, which runs until March 31, 1989. WSU attorneys won’t comment on the case, except to say they are negotiating with Smithson, who meanwhile is collecting his $75,000 annual salary a month at a time.

WSU’s athletic budget problems are hitting students and Shocker boosters in their pocketbooks. Student fees for athletics almost tripled in the 1986 fiscal year, from $220,000 to $614,000.

Next year, student fees for athletics will rise to $740,000 and then increase again in 1987-88 to $800,000. The first-year increase cost a WSU student taking 15 hours in the spring and fall semesters an extra $37.50 a year in student fees.

And this spring, about 1,800 Shocker booster club members were handed a 15-percent hike in membership dues. In the least expensive membership category, the increase cost boosters at least $8.60 a year. In the most expensive category, it cost at least $1,500 a year.

“The budget’s bad off,” said Martin Perline, WSU’s faculty representative to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. “It’s struggling.”

Legally, WSU’s athletic program is a non-profit, private corporation called Wichita State University Intercollegiate Athletic Association Inc.

The corporation is controlled by Athletic Director Lew Perkins, university President Warren Armstrong, and a committee made up of boosters and faculty members. The university controller’s office keeps the corporation’s books.

The athletic corporation took in about $3.8 million in 1985. The program’s three biggest sources of income - not considering what each one spent - were $1.2 million from booster contributions, about 31 percent of the total; $958,000 from men’s basketball, about 25 percent of the total; and $797,000 from football, about 21 percent of the total. The other 23 percent of the budget came from other sources such as minor sports, seat rentals, concessions and the Shocker sports channel.

The totals for basketball and football are a combination of season ticket sales, ticket sales at the gates, and money teams earn for post-season tournaments and special games. The basketball program’s $958,000, for instance, includes about $904,000 in sales of season tickets and tickets at the gates. These figures do not include contributions by booster club members, who get “free” season tickets to basketball and football with their memberships.

The state also contributed $498,000 in 1985 to pay some athletic department salaries, money not included in the sports program’s $3.8 million budget.

Meanwhile, the sports program’s expenses have continued to rise at a fairly steady rate in recent years. Total spending in 1985 was $4.1 million - up $542,000 from 1984, an increase of about 15 percent.

The WSU athletic corporation’s annual financial reports for the past 10 years tell the story of a corporation with money troubles. Summarizing the accounting statistics, the story is simple:

“We don’t have the income to match our expenses,” said Strickland.

Since 1979, the athletic corporation’s operating fund - the bank account that pays for everything from airfare for the teams to lapel pins for boosters - has been in the hole.

And the biggest deficits have come in the past two years. An accumulated deficit of about $30,000 in 1983 went up to $463,000 in 1984, and to $798,000 in 1985.

The athletic corporation’s budget problems are starting to ring alarms both on and off campus.

Some boosters fear that unless the athletic corporation’s finances improve in coming years, minor sports such as baseball, tennis, volleyball and golf could be cut from the list of university-sponsored varsity programs.

This year, for instance, Kansas State is dropping men’s tennis and women’s softball. WSU could drop two of its 14 minor sports without losing its Division I-A status with the NCAA. The NCAA requires 14 teams at a college or university for Division I status.

“We read every day about schools dropping sports and retrenching,” said Strickland. “Lew (Perkins) is on record that we don’t want to do that.

“He’s trying to keep us all together in it.”

Said Perkins: “I’m concerned about all 16 sports.”

Perkins, however, also faces the delicate task of trying to keep together a very diverse constituency off campus - especially boosters who support the program with their contributions.

Football, for instance, is more expensive than it’s worth, according to some boosters. In 1985, football cost WSU about $1.3 million to operate and generated only about $797,000 - a deficit of more than $500,000.

Yet boosters and university officials often say that the university’s reputation could be damaged if WSU scales back or drops football.

“This is my own opinion,” said University President Warren Armstrong. “We’re either going to play Division I-A football, or we’re not going to play football.”

Perkins and his budget directors say dropping even minor sports is not part of their confidential three-year plan to improve the program’s finances.

In fact, Strickland said, the athletic budget already is improving slightly. He said he expects 1986 financial reports will show the program operated in the black for the first time in years.

Strickland declined to estimate the size of the surplus he’s expecting, saying he’d call it “modest.”

“We anticipate a small surplus for this year,” said Strickland. “It won’t be enough to knock down the deficit much, but at least we’re stabilizing.”

Meanwhile, Perkins said, he’s trying to make WSU sports more profitable. Part of that effort, Perkins said, is dismantling parts of former athletic director Ted Bredehoft’s money-making machinery.

During the WSU basketball team’s brief two years as a nationally ranked team, Bredehoft brought a carnival atmosphere to campus. Skydivers, camel races, Shocker bread, and musical chairs were only a few of Bredehoft’s tricks aimed at raising money.

“Camel races,” scoffs Perkins. “That’s not fund-raising. That’s pure promotionalism.”

Perkins has closed the sports souvenir shop Bredehoft opened at the arena, and is considering dropping the Shocker Sports Channel, a Bredehoft original that gave Wichita claim to the first pay-TV collegiate sports channel in the nation in 1981.

“I want to take one more year and look at what we’re getting from it,” Perkins said. “We’ve got to look at what we’re losing in ticket sales against what we’re getting from cable.”

Interest in the Shocker channel - it costs about $85 and is on the air from November to March - apparently is waning. In 1984, the Shocker channel made the athletic program about $103,000. In 1985, it brought in about $35,000.

“Everything is go right now for the ’86-87 season,” said Mike Murrus, Cablevision’s vice president for operations and finance. “We haven’t discussed the future of the channel beyond that.”

Also, Perkins says he’s cleaning up WSU’s damaged reputation with other schools so that he can schedule more money-making games with top teams such as Arizona State in football and Oregon State in basketball.

Game scheduling is a big financial tool for schools because they are paid fees - guarantees - for playing games at other schools.

Tentative schedules are penciled in years ahead. Perkins says that prior to his coming, WSU would schedule two or three games on the same advance date, then wait until the last minute to sort out which team would be the most lucrative to play.

Scheduling games in an era of big bucks and television schedules is a complex matter that operates on the principle of gentlemen’s agreement. A sort of baseball-card swapping goes on as a matter of course. However, Perkins says, WSU had built up a reputation of less-than-gentlemanly participation, pushing those informal rules too far on occasion.

“When I came here, they had been scheduling as many as three football games the same day,” said Perkins. “They would wait until the last minute to call and drop two of them. . . . “

Perkins also has set up annual games with the University of Kansas and Kansas State.

Perkins is leading a drive to save the athletic program money by making tuition for athletes from out of state the same as for in-state students. It will take a vote of the Kansas Legislature to make the change. WSU officials said it’s too early to predict whether the plan will win approval from the Kansas Board of Regents and the Legislature, but predicted Kansas State University will back the proposal.

Now, the athletic program at WSU must pay the university out-of-state tuition fees for about 67 of the 188 athletes on scholarship. Perkins wants out-of-state students on athletic scholarship to pay the same fees as in-state students. In the 1984-85 academic year, for instance, the program could have saved $218,000 if athletes from out of state had paid the same as in-state students.

Perkins has installed the school’s first full-time fund-raiser strictly for athletics to work with the university’s Endowment Association. The Endowment Association traditionally has raised money mainly for academic programs at WSU. Endowments are gifts from boosters that are collected and invested by the Endowment Association, which pays only the proceeds from interest to the athletic program.

One of Perkins’ biggest efforts to “stabilize” the WSU athletic budget, however, has drawn mixed reviews.

Last year, students at WSU voted 11-1 against Perkins’ and Armstrong’s plan to raise student fees for the support of athletics. The issue brought about 4,000 of the school’s 17,000 students out to vote - the second-biggest turnout for a student referendum in university history. The vote was not binding on the university.

“It was too much at once, way too much,” said Jeff Kahrs, the student government president who threatened to go to court to fight the fee hike. “We don’t want to look like sore losers, but it left a hell of lot of hard feelings.”

Even some faculty members who support the athletic program in general have criticized Perkins and Armstrong for mishandling the politics of the fee hike. ‘’That student fee thing was horrendous,” said Ed Flentje, a WSU economics professor who has served on the faculty committee that oversees athletics. “It just wasn’t handled well. It was a completely unnecessary flap.”

Student leaders eventually conceded defeat when Perkins and Armstrong agreed to spread the increase over three years and to earmark student fees to pay only for the costs of operating minor sports.

But the episode may have caused a lasting rift between the athletic department administration and students.

“The school’s in a strange situation,” said Steve DesMarteau, student ombudsperson at WSU. “The majority of students don’t care about athletics - and they don’t go to the games. No wonder they felt robbed.”

Student fee hikes, however, aren’t likely to get WSU sports programs completely out of the red. Probably the program’s only hope at quickly making up the deficit would come with a winning season in basketball or football.

A 20-victory basketball season, for instance, likely would mean hundreds of thousands of dollars of new income in every category from attendance to donations to post-season play and TV coverage.

One winning season also likely would generate enough goodwill to keep the program going financially through the rest of the ’80s.

“It’s the same old story,” said Flentje. “Winning isn’t everything - it’s just No. 1.”