The University of Minnesota fields 25 athletic teams, a number exceeded by only nine of the other 73 schools in the NCAA's six major conferences. The Gophers have a losing football team, a men's basketball program that failed to reach the 2011 NCAA tournament -- and is begging for a new practice facility -- plus an athletic budget that is maxed out.
Athletic director Joel Maturi routinely hears the suggestion: Cut, or spend less, on a couple of non-revenue programs and increase the funding for football and men's basketball. Maturi vehemently disagrees, saying he is determined to maintain a successful 25-sport program through his tenure. His contract is set to expire July 1, 2012, and his fate beyond that will be in the hands of incoming President Eric Kaler.
"Quite frankly, if we're going to operate it strictly like a business, we should have three products, not 25," Maturi said, referring to revenue-generating football, men's basketball and men's hockey. "But because Minnesota has always believed in that opportunity and that consistent mission, we've been able to [keep all 25 sports]."
Maturi took over nine years ago saddled with the prospect of having to eliminate three sports -- men's gymnastics and men's and women's golf -- because of funding problems. A fundraising effort raised enough to save the sports for a minimum of three years, and there has been no doomsday scenario for any programs since, despite an athletic department that Maturi says has no reserve savings account.
Maturi admits that without the infusion of money from the Big Ten Network (about $6.5 million annually), the Gophers would have been forced to eliminate some programs. He submitted the athletic department's budget for 2011-12 on Friday, and when finalized, it is expected to be around $78 million -- about the same as it was two years ago despite increases in everything from coaching salaries to travel to scholarship costs, which must absorb the same tuition hikes as the general student population.
Regent Dean Johnson said there is no movement to trim sports programs, but he also makes it clear that the athletic department must be virtually self-supporting going forward. The athletic department will receive about $1.7 million from the university's central administration next year, down from more than $10 million a decade ago. Maturi said he has been told that $1.7 million infusion will remain, at least in the short term, partly because university accounting does not allow the athletic department to retain revenue generated from parking at athletic events, as is the case with most other Big Ten schools.
But that concession is one of the few Maturi can count on.
"In all fairness, with our present administration and present board, there's a great interest in making sure we do not lose our focal mission -- that is research and education of our students," Johnson said. "We do not want to start taking resources from academics and research and place them in athletics. We'd like the two to stand on their own, and that's a real delicate balance."
Maturi believes his department can continue to support 25 sports -- at least in the short term -- by capitalizing on new revenue streams. That includes:
• Preferred seating plans in Williams and Mariucci arenas scheduled to start in 2012, which projections show could generate between $1 million and $2 million each year.
• The possibility that the Legislature will approve alcohol sales at campus sporting events, which could recoup about $1.2 million annually.
• This fall's inaugural Big Ten football championship game, projected to bring in about $1.5 million per year for each school.
• An increase in revenue from the BTN due to Nebraska's entrance into to the conference this year.
The new revenue streams are a must. Scholarship costs alone account for $9 million -- an increase of $2.5 million in less than a decade -- and those costs will increase again if the proposed 14 percent funding cut for higher education is approved by the Legislature. The Gophers' travel budgets typically are among the highest in the Big Ten because of Minneapolis' location.
Outgoing President Robert Bruininks, who declined an interview request for this story, said after the firing of football coach Tim Brewster last fall that "we may have to trim our sports to balance our budget in the future. ... I think it will be very difficult to maintain [all our sports] in a new environment without the infusion of significant new dollars around football and men's basketball and probably men's hockey."
The model Maturi frequently hears about is Wisconsin, where he was an assistant AD when the school cut five sports, including baseball, in 1991. Wisconsin outspends Minnesota on football ($22 million to $17.4 million) and men's basketball ($7.6 million to $5.7 million), largely because the Badgers' football program generates $38.7 million in revenues compared to $32.3 million for Minnesota (based on 2009-10 figures). Wisconsin has an overall athletic budget of slightly more than $90 million.
Several Minnesota administrators, including Bruininks, have said that the Badgers' football success is more directly linked to the hiring of a coach like Barry Alvarez -- who won three Rose Bowls in seven seasons before becoming Wisconsin's AD -- than spending money. Maturi said that if he could be guaranteed that cutting some sports would result in significant improvement for the football program, he "would probably go down that path. But I don't buy it," he said.
"I don't believe that if we eliminated eight sports, therefore we would win more in football and basketball. Now, do I believe that football and basketball could use more resources? Sure. And so can every one of our 25 sports. But do I believe that each and every one of them have the resources today to win a Big Ten championship? My answer is yes."
The number of sports sponsored varies considerably from school to school, conference to conference. The Big Ten averages 25 sports per school; the SEC averages 19. In the Big Ten, Ohio State offers 36 sports, while Northwestern has 19.
"There is no right way and there is no wrong way," said Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo, whose department has 31 sports. "No matter how many sports you have, there's always the financial tugs on you."
The Gophers' overall budget of $78.7 million in 2009-10 ranked fifth in the Big Ten, behind Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State. Their budget was slightly below Penn State ($80.2 million) even though the Nittany Lions generated almost $38 million more in football revenue.
Minnesota and Northwestern were the only Big Ten schools that failed to show an athletic profit in 2009-10, according to data filed to the U.S. Department of Education.
"Right now, every dollar we make, we spend," Maturi said. "It's not a way to run a business, and our hope is that we start putting some money away very soon."
Both Maturi and Liz Eull, the senior associate athletic director who oversees the department's budget, said it's difficult to compare schools because everyone does their accounting differently. Some schools get breaks on out-of-state tuition. Some athletic departments don't pay fringe benefits for employees or utilities for their venues. Some don't fully fund every sport, meaning they don't use the full allotment of scholarships available.
"You're not always measuring apples to apples when comparing these kinds of things," Maturi said. "People say, 'Look, they're self-sufficient.' They may be less self-sufficient than we are based on some of these kinds of breaks that some people get and some people don't."
Michigan State also offers 25 sports, but its budget was $61.6 million in 2009-10. A school official said the athletic department gets a break on out-of-state tuition in men's scholarships for nonrevenue sports, which helps explain some of the difference.
Boston College does not offer scholarships in seven of its 31 sports -- men's and women's swimming, men's golf, men's and women's fencing and men's and women's skiing. Several other major colleges also have stopped funding scholarships for some nonrevenue teams.
"Our goal in some of those sports is not to compete for a national championship; it's not to compete for an ACC championship," DeFilippo said. "In those sports, it's to be competitive on a regional basis and to have a great experience competing in intercollegiate athletics."
Maturi said he understands that philosophy, but it's not one he shares or would consider for his department, even if it saved money.
"It's not my mentality," he said. "I believe if we can't be competitive in the Big Ten, I'm not so sure it's the right thing for us to sponsor."
Maturi said his department is financially stable enough to earmark revenue from the preferred seating plan first go toward improving facilities, including new scoreboards in Mariucci and Williams. The school already is spending around $1.5 million for improvements to the weight room and new turf for the football practice facility.
Maturi acknowledges that Minnesota, as a BCS conference school, has been forced into the so-called "arms race" that is driving some schools to reduce funding for, or even cut, nonrevenue sports. The Gophers' athletic budget has increased by roughly $31 million from when Maturi arrived in 2002.
"The facilities, the salaries, the number of support personnel have gone off the charts," Maturi said. "The market has driven it, and then everybody chases the market. That's the game we're playing."
Maturi clearly finds little joy in that particular game. Instead, he often references the Directors' Cup standings -- which measures a department's overall success by tracking all sports -- to support his position. That viewpoint has become a punch line for many Gophers fans.
"I hear it almost daily," Maturi said.
"When I say how proud I am that we're 11th in the Directors Cup right now, I get 100 e-mails saying: 'I don't care. I want to win in football.' Well that's good. So do I. But the fact of the matter is I'm proud of what the Olympic sports and others have done and the successes that they've had."
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org
Dennis Brackin • email@example.com