Monday, August 11, 2014

Designing The Future(s) of Athletics At Georgetown

Part one of a continuing series.

Over the course of the last year, officials at Georgetown University have engaged in a series of lectures and exercises known as "Designing The Future(s) of the University". It's an interesting often provocative exercise that attempts to take on an industry to whom inertia is often a birthright (namely, academia) and ask the kind of questions businesses and non-profits ask regularly, namely, where do we want this place to be in 25 years?

Given the topic, and the participants, the discussions can be pedagogical and, well, a little dry.

"To encourage this type of coaching, universities need to create learning spaces that support meaningful student-faculty collaboration, including design labs and nuanced, interactive online platforms. Panelists identified the distinct value of the university in this new ecosystem of learning—its physicality, the availability of experts—which will be critical in defining the path ahead."

As I said, dry.

But many of these same questions, a little more adventurously, can be asked about athletics at Georgetown, or at any college or university. More so than any time in the past century, education is ripe for systemic change, perhaps unseen tioday, and with it, it may affect the way universities look at intercollegiate athletics as part of that environment. Add this uncertainty with the tremors facing the NCAA and how it manages a increasingly professionalized climate of competition, and you have the ingredients for a bumpy ride for college sports over the next quarter century.

Georgetown has never been an easy fit in college sports. It's a school that is best known for basketball, but it is not a basketball school. Its breadth of programs is more akin to the Ivy League than the Big 12, but produces more NBA talent than schools twice its size or its budget. And almost all of this has been built up over just 35 years--not by good fortune, by some shrewd planning that sought, and succeeded in doing what few schools outside of Stanford, Duke, and Notre Dame have done--build an national athletic brand without sacrificing its academic reputation.

Certainly, things can change suddenly. They have before.

Over nearly 150 years of athletics at Georgetown, four distinct periods of athletic upheaval took place, none by scandal but all by perception.

"On four separate occasions, 1894, 1905, 1932 and 1951 the leadership of Georgetown University, believing that it had become too important and too expensive, deemphasized Athletics by cutting University support," wrote sailing coach Michael Callahan in 2012. "If Georgetown Athletics costs increased by $9 million there is a strong risk that the debt incurred by Georgetown would lead many University leaders to believe that Athletics had once again become too important and too expensive."

In the two years since Callahan wrote these words as part of a master's degree thesis, the budget for Georgetown Athletics has increased by nearly $3 million.

One hundred years ago, 1914, Georgetown sponsored four men's sports for an undergraduate population of just over 200. Just five years removed from when the football and basketball programs were nearly shuttered and the crew team was set asunder, a different athletic model allowed a very small school to fight amongst the likes of Virginia, North Carolina, and Pittsburgh. While the College officially frowned on scholarships, the teams were increasingly run out of the graduate schools, particularly law, where older (and presumably, more experienced) men could play. The school did not fund the teams, but a "student manager" was given funding to hire coaches, set a schedule, and where he saw fit, to award scholarships. By 1916, Georgetown featured the leading rusher in college football, by 1918 the leading scorer in basketball. But times would change.

Seventy five years ago, 1939, Georgetown was back atop the national stage--not in basketball, but football. Its second unbeaten season in football saw it allow two touchdowns all season against the likes of Temple, Syracuse, West Virginia, and Maryland. Scholarships were not handed out as largesse, instead, the men on Georgetown's teams were expected to earn their keep with steady campus employment. An All-American might be counted upon to serve as a waiter in the campus dining hall, to fold laundry, or stack books in the library to earn his keep. But times would change.

Fifty years ago, 1964, Georgetown athletics was still under the cloud of the loss of intercollegiate football. Scholarships were less than half of what they were in 1950, and despite an increase in sports from eight to ten (and two women's sports in that mix), a growing list of club sports threatened to change the low-impact model devised in football's wake. Some club sports survived (football, lacrosse, rowing), others (polo, for example) did not. But times would change.

Over the next 25 years, athletics enjoyed a boom on the Hilltop--27 sports by 1989, a major expansion of women's sports, a move to Division I for all its teams, and an ability to leverage Georgetown's rising name recognition in basketball for financial gain, through royalty licensing, to help fund the growth. The athletic budget grew by nearly 10 fold from 1980 to 1990, and by the early 1990's, it was Georgetown -- Notre Dame or Texas or Florida State-- that accounted for more royalty sales from branded athletic apparel than any other university. But times would change.

In 2014, Georgetown Athletics remains a unique success story in spite of a number of instititutional, financial, and competitive roadblocks that would derail most schools. Despite a down period for many of its men's sports (including just one NCAA post-season win for men's basketball in six years), Georgetown remains among the most successful and emulated programs nationally. It does so, however, amidst the strains of a 29 sport program that has long outstripped its facilities, where the cost of education makes elevating some sports difficult if not untenable, and where the financial future of the program is intrinsically tied to a single television contract among a number of schools with a different academic and athletic profile than those it came of age with in the 1980's.

But Athletics isn't alone--it's Georgetown that is figuratively and literally bursting at the seams. It starts with cost.

By 1914, a "scholarship" to Georgetown was just over $400 a year, a reflection that most students of a certain age lived off-campus, that nearly all college classes were taught by Jesuits that did not take a salary, and with a campus of eight buildings across 104 acres, costs were manageable.

By 1939, a full year at Georgetown could cost up to $1,100 a year, but a steady job could cut that amount to a few hundred when all was said and done. By 1964, the campus population had doubled and tuition had nearly doubled as well. But both were nothing to what awaited their children's generations.

By 1989, a year of Georgetown, a year of study approached $20,000. Today. that's a bargain.

The entering classes at Georgetown will pay over $60,000 this year, and that's not even including the oft-discussed "cost of attendance" that has gripped the college sports world of late. At one time, the cost of attending college was less than half that of the median national income., today, its more than 120 percent of it.

If you are assuming costs will go down, you are either an optimist or one who believes the dollar will deflate into a pile of rubble. The Jesuit vows of poverty do not apply to lay faculty, the debt service on buildings continues unabated well into the 21st Century, and today's families increasingly value "new and improved" over "old and proven".

At a 3% growth rate (which isn't much, ask any faculty member), the cost of one year at Georgetown University will pass $75,000 by the end of this decade, and $100,000 by the end of the next. Assuming no spikes in inflation, no financial crises where Georgetown will have to sing for its supper, and no physical threat to the Nation's Capital that would otherwise imperil enrollment, the Class of 2039 will pay somewhere around $528,365 over four years of study.

How many parents are going to pay that for their son to play baseball? How many families are going to be able to afford a monthly payment of $11,007 for their daughter to play field hockey? How many basketball tickets will Georgetown have to sell to cover the rent at a aging, obsolete Verizon Center in 2039, assuming it hasn't been torn down by then?

The Athletic Department can't control the cost of inflation nor tis effects on the cost of education, a given. There was a time, back in the 1980's when I wrote for The HOYA, where the thought of $10,000 for year of education seemed unthinkable, and today, that wouldn't buy a year's room and board. But as Georgetown continues to strive to provide an outstanding curricular and extracurricular experience for its students, it's got to figure out how to afford to do it.

Much of it begins with the cost of scholarships. There's a reason why schools like Notre Dame and Louisville suddenly got good in a lot of sports--they invested in athletic scholarships to attract the best talent A full ride at South Bend is very attractive when the choice is a $30,000 loan to go to Georgetown. And that full ride will look better and better as the prices keep going up. If your son or daughter wants to play college sports, at what point is a Georgetown education unrealizable when competitive schools can turn that decision into a single digit, $0?

Schools like Texas and Ohio State, if they choose, could put nearly every athlete on full scholarship, a free ride. Stanford almost does now, Notre Dame is on that way. yet, at Georgetown, 21 of Georgetown's 29 sports account for less than 20 scholarships. Scholarships and coaching made Georgetown a basketball power in the 1970's, a lacrosse power in the 1990's and a soccer power in the 2000's. But if your kid plays football or baseball, wants to swim or row, or simply competes on his own in golf or tennis, is there any hope to get better?

"We do not believe that every team must compete for a national championship for that program to demonstrate competitive excellence, says Georgetown. "We acknowledge that Georgetown needs to invest further in athletics infrastructure in order to strengthen performance in some sports. But that need cannot be an excuse for any team’s failure to maximize the opportunity to compete with intensity."

Yet, according to Callahan, ” the level playing field is more of a dream than a reality. In the Big East Conference, the playing field is not level and the Conference Champion is more often than not the team that spends the most money. This poses a significant problem for many teams at Georgetown. When a student-athlete practices hard every day, sacrifices vacations, weekends, study time, and a social life to train hard, and the end result is four years of last place finishes, that student is often disillusioned. When student-athletes view their time spent in Georgetown Athletics as a negative, they are less likely to give back to the school. Georgetown Athletics fundraising figures show that teams who finish near the bottom of the conference simply do not raise as much money from their alumni as the teams who have won. Head coaches of teams that have no scholarship money often don’t solicit donations from alumni who were members of losing teams because they know they are not inclined to give back. This creates a vicious cycle of losing."

This is evident in football. When Georgetown joined the Patriot League , the understanding was that it could compete, even with a budget one half that of its competition, in a league which respected the nonscholarship philosophy Georgetown had built football up from after 1964. Three months after it finished 8-3, its best record in over a decade, the Patriot League voted to move to full scholarship football. With its first season competing against scholarships in the patriot League, the Hoyas dropped to 2-9. Within two years, six teams in the league will have 60, and one may have none.

"Georgetown Athletics has a math problem," said Callahan. "It is trying to fund 29 varsity sports on a budget that is too small to make every team a “Competitive” sport. It has made the decision to compete in the Big East Conference due to the value it brings primarily to the Men’s Basketball program and the revenue and exposure it brings to the University...[but] the current state of affairs within Georgetown Athletics and the Big East make it impossible for many of Georgetown’s sports to win. The competition is too strong. The difference in scholarships, facilities and recruiting is too much for most sports to overcome despite the cache of a Georgetown degree."

The answer to this dilemma is not to throw in the towel or to chuck 20 sports to prop up one or two, but to consider how this program can (and should) be positioned for success. Not for 2015, but for 2025 and 2035 as well. It's not just an issue in football but for every sport at Georgetown that is not getting a check from Fox Sports.

How does Georgetown, who clearly understands the importance of athletics in educating the "whole person", prepare for and execute a plan in a sports world that is more expensive, more expansive, and more explosive than we realize today? Today, it might be cost of attendance scholarships. Tomorrow it might be a player's union, or a basketball tournament only open to 60 or 70 schools. What then? More importantly, what now?

When Frank Rienzo, Joe Lang, and John Thompson built the foundation that has set Georgetown athletics on this most unlikely of journeys, it managed risk and uncertainty with innovation and strategic thinking. As they pass the torch to the next generation in McDonough Gymnasium, it's time to talk again, not only on where Hoya Athletics needs to be headed, but how it intends to get there.

In part 2, this question: is there a untapped funding model that can support a new generation of Georgetown athletics?