MHERST - The University of Massachusetts Athletic Department is investing heavily in its basketball program to reverse a serious erosion of fan interest and revenue.
Only four years after producing a $1.15 million surplus for the department, the basketball program last year ended with a $490,513 deficit. These revenues not only help pay for basketball but also many other UMass sports.
To turn the program around, the university has spent $275,000 to change coaching staffs, $117,000 to schedule "guarantee games" and $110,000 to play four practice games in Greece. Department officials say the investments should improve the team's performance, rekindle ticket sales and boost revenue.
It is particularly important to the athletic department that basketball succeed because the university does not have a Division I football program capable of generating revenue to support the university's 28 other teams.
"When we had a surplus in basketball we certainly spread most of it around to our other sports programs," said Athletic Director Bob Marcum.
"There is no doubt on this campus that men's basketball has been our No. 1 sport as far as providing additional revenue and additional profits and those sort of things for all our programs," Marcum said. "We're a lot like Penn State but we don't have big-time football, and we're a lot like the Ivys but we don't have a huge foundation or endowment behind us.
"When you look at a program like ours, we are not a self sufficient program, " he said.
The athletic department operates primarily on its allocation from the university but also receives revenue from ticket sales, booster contributions, student fees and television appearances.
According to athletic department annual reports, the department's budget for the 1999-2000 year was $16.9 million. Basketball spent $1.75 million that year with revenues of $1.77 million. By comparison, the football program spent $3.2 million the same year with revenues of $523,947.
Although figures for 2000-2001 are not final, Marcum in February requested a $1.6 million increase in student fees earmarked for the athletic department.
"We wanted to see about an increase in fees because there hadn't been one in three years," Marcum said. He said the request was not approved for this year, but might be resubmitted at some point.
This year, most departments at the university, including the athletic department, have been ordered to prepare for five percent budget cuts.
Marcum said the athletic department's ability to generate revenue could reduce the cuts it faces.
"We're certainly part of the departments that are on the agenda to take a five percent cut," Marcum said. "The only difference in our situation is we do have an opportunity to make that up if our gate receipts go well and if some other things fall in place.
"We can get into a little bit of a wait-and-see situation and see how our preseason sales go, especially in men's basketball," he said. "We really have an opportunity to look at our financial situation as far as generating revenue to offset any potential cuts that we might have to take."
The basketball program did not produce a surplus until the Mullins Center arena opened during the 1992-93 season. The team played five games in the new 9,493-seat facility that year and produced a surplus of $46,675.
The program reached its revenue peak in the 1996-97 year, with a $1.15 million surplus. The surplus began dropping steadily, to $1,018,363 in 1997-98, to $738,070 in 1998-99 and to $18,218 in 1999-2000. Last year, with its first deficit since the pre-John Calipari years, the program spent $2,071,566 while bringing in only $1,581,053.
Calipari took over the program in 1988 and compiled a 193-71 record - including five conference titles and one Final Four appearance - before leaving to coach the New Jersey Nets of the NBA in 1996.
As the surpluses got smaller after Calipari left, fewer dollars were available to the school's other 28 teams and spending was tightened.
"Instead of four trips they take three," Marcum said. "They change their accommodations. They do a lot of things so they can still be competitive, but they know they can't do the extra things."
The adjustments led to a corresponding decline in team performance.
From 1993-94 to 1996-97, the university ranked in the top 50 of more than 300 Division I schools in the Sears Director's Cup, an annual NCAA competition that awards points based on team performance, to determine the nation's best collegiate athletic programs.
UMass dropped to 51st in 1998-99, 109th in 1999-00 and 103rd in 2000-01.
According to Al Rufe, senior associate athletic director for finance, "The sports that aren't fully funded in terms of scholarship aid have to feel that if they ever have a chance of getting more aid, basketball has to be more successful.
"The university is not in a position to offer us more money," Rufe said.
To increase the amount of money the basketball program generates, the department focused on three areas: staff, schedule and the trip to Greece.
Firing former coach Bruiser Flint and hiring new coach Steve Lappas will cost the department approximately $275,000, Rufe said.
Of that $275,000, Rufe said $206,000 went to buying out the remaining year of Flint's contract. UMass policy dictates that each assistant coach receive one month of severance pay for every full year he worked at UMass, unless he got another coaching job.
But because Flint rehired his entire staff when he was named head coach at Drexel, UMass didn't have to pay assistants Geoff Arnold, Mike Connors and Chuck Martin through the summer.
"The fact that they all got jobs at Drexel really helped matters," Rufe said.
Even with Flint's buyout paid off, Lappas' base pay of $175,000 is $50,000 more than Flint's $125,000.
The term "guarantee game" in college basketball refers to the process of a higher level school paying a lower level visiting team a significant amount of money to play a game. The higher level schools set themselves up for a likely win while the lower level school makes money. The deal is for one game only.
UMass spent no money during the 2000-01 season on guarantee games. All three of the Minutemen's non-conference home games were part of home-and-home series.
In the upcoming season, UMass will spend $117,000 on four guarantee games against Maine ($35,000), Marist ($30,000), Holy Cross ($15.000) and Arkansas Little-Rock ($37,000).
The costs of playing those games could be off set by strong attendance.
"We're going to pay out more guarantees, but we'll generate more in ticket sales," Rufe said.
In addition to the "guarantee games" and the coaching changes, the athletic department sent the team on a 10-day, four-game tour of Greece in late August. The idea was to give the team a head start in preparing for the season so that it could be more competitive, which in turn would boost fan interest and ticket sales.
According to Rufe, the price tag on the trip was approximately $110,000, all of which came from ticket sales that are part of the operating budget.
Rufe said the basic operating costs of the basketball program will continue to rise.
"I'm guessing the budget is going to be up maybe $20,000 in terms of operations," Rufe said. "Recruiting, scouting, new uniforms, office equipment, team travel, meals and so forth. There are inflationary costs as far as plane trips and cost of fuel."
Despite the increase in spending, there is a feeling of optimism in the athletic department about the program's future earning potential.
Rufe said that estimates made by the school's ticket office point to a projected increase of 900 season tickets, from 3,100 last year to 4,000 this year, with the hope that a successful season in 2001-02 would push the numbers even higher. A season ticket for the 2001-02 season is $280.
"That's a general consensus between Bob Marcum, myself, the ticket manager (Jason Galaska) and a couple of other people," Rufe said. "That's a reasonable target, given the (coaching) change. No one has a crystal ball, but we try to figure out what we think is reasonable. Once the season ticket sales are finalized, we adjust our numbers to see what we really have."
Because of that increased interest, Rufe is projecting a positive boost in revenue.
"I have a positive feeling because we're hoping that men's basketball revenue will be increasing this year," he said. "Success will have a very positive effect on ticket sales and fund raising, maybe television revenue.
"I look forward to having the increased revenue, which will make all of our jobs a little easier," Rufe said. "We're counting on it. We're projecting it."