Balancing act

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— Pioneer photo graphic/Jonathan Eppley

Ferris AD Weisenburger discusses success with limited budget, Title IX requirements, declining enrollment

BIG RAPIDS — During the 2014-15 school year, Ferris State University’s football, men’s basketball and tennis, and women’s volleyball teams all claimed Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles.

The Bulldogs were able to have that success with the third lowest athletic subsidy per student among the 13 public universities in Michigan.

FSU’s subsidy per student system-wide is $403.23, according to the NCAA and National Center for Education Statistics. The state’s largest per-student subsidy – the amount of dollars transferred from a university’s general fund to pay for athletics – is $1,284.60 at Lake Superior State University. Conversely, the University of Michigan has the lowest at just $6.04 per student because it generates nearly enough revenue to cover its $152,477,026 athletics budget.

Institutional funds used to subsidize athletics are comprised of state allocations, tuition and student fees to help offset losses procured from running athletics programs.  

“I would attribute that to the institution, but also our coaches,” FSU Athletics Director Perk Weisenburger said of the school’s subsidy. “Our coaches and our student-athletes do a good job of stretching what we get. We have to find ways to generate money, and we are finding more ways to generate, because certainly our goal is to remain as competitive as possible.

“We are able to stay successful through donors, alumni and maximizing every bit of sponsorship and revenue opportunity that we have.”

The Bulldogs’ 2014-15 subsidy of $5,887,118 is the fourth lowest in Michigan and second lowest among Division II schools. FSU, along with Michigan Technological University and Northern Michigan University, also are Division II schools with Division I hockey programs.

At FSU, hockey is one of the most costly programs to support, but it also generates the most revenue behind football.  Although football received more contributions, including donations from individuals, corporations, organizations and foundations, hockey generated $244,454 in ticket sales during the 2014-15 season, compared to football’s $42,181.

Hockey also earned $65,015 from guarantees, which is revenue from participation in away games. All other programs received $14,639 combined.

However, hockey also spends the most on coaches’ salaries, travel and conference membership. It cost the program $49,340 in 2014-15 just to be a part of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. The institution’s total membership dues equaled $78,084.

Nevertheless, Weisenburger said the hockey program is an integral part of the university.

“I don’t think there is any downfall,” he said. “Competing at the Division I level, it takes a heck of a commitment, and our institution has been squarely behind us in providing an operating budget and the scholarship maximum. We have same number of scholarships as North Dakota, Boston College and University of Michigan. Being able to have the notoriety of playing Division I hockey and playing those types of institutions only adds benefit and value to the legitimacy of our program. The strength of our program helps with recruiting. I think having a D1 program in an all-D2 type school is a plus. I think our other programs benefit when hockey has success, and I think hockey benefits when our other programs have success.

“The fall time of the year is such an important time because it is the time you make those impressions, you get those potential recruits and prospective students on campus. If you have a live campus environment like we’ve had the last few years, whether it’s home volleyball games or football games and rolling into hockey, it makes the sell a lot easier. It’s a place kids want to come, and they certainly can get an excellent education in a number of majors and degrees. It all comes together as one.”

Weisenburger said the possibility of adding another Division I sport is slim.

“I would say we are very content,” he said. “Going to Division I is a much bigger decision and a much bigger financial commitment than a lot of people understand and realize. You’re adding coaches, you’re adding scholarships, you’re adding travel budget and facilities have to be upgraded. Really, it’s not in the realm of possibility. You look down the road, you have Grand Valley who has more students, better facilities, bigger budget, and they don’t have any inclination of going to Division I. They look like a Division I school with their enrollment, but they’ve got a nice niche. They like their niche. It works for them.”

LOWER ENROLLMENT

Weisenburger praised FSU’s coaches, student-athletes and administrators for building successful  programs, especially with the second lowest overall athletics budget in the state at $7,252,476 – less than half of Grand Valley State’s, which is tops in Division II at $15,899,541.

The Bulldogs’ total athletic budget increased the two previous years from $6,103,823 in 2013 to $6,981,695 in 2014, but Weisenburger said he anticipates the budget to level off in the next few years because of lower enrollment.

FSU’s 2016 enrollment is down 528 students from 14,715 system-wide last year, a decrease of nearly 3.6 percent, according to the Fall Enrollment Forum released by President David Eisler’s office. The reason, Weisenburger said, is the decline in Michigan high-school graduates.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education predicts in its 2012 report, ‘Knocking at the College Door,’ that the rate of high school graduates in Michigan will decrease 6.4 percent from the 2016-17 to 2021-22 academic years.

“Athletics certainly is an investment,” Weisenburger said. “Would we like to have some of the budgets and facilities that the Grand Valley’s have? Sure. But we stretch the value of our dollars and do a heck of a job, and we’re proud of it. But right now, we are going to go through some cuts with an enrollment dip, and this isn’t a one-time dip. There are fewer kids coming out of high school in Michigan and in the Midwest, so this might be a little more of a dip that’s going to last a little bit longer until we come out of it.”

According FSU’s Fall Enrollment Forum, the decrease in students this year is expected to equal a loss of $5,150,000.

“I think it is certainly possible it will affect budgets across the university,” Weisenburger said. “At this juncture, we don’t really know how or to what degree, but part of how Ferris State operates in the time I’ve been here, when there is some strain or some cuts, everybody has to share in it. So we are fully expecting that we are going to have some adjustments to make.”

MEETING TITLE IX REQUIREMENTS

During the 2014-15 school year, FSU had 278 male varsity athletes, with 160 receiving financial aid. There were 158 female athletes, with 102 receiving financial aid. Scholarship equivalencies equal 52.86 for men and 37.18 for women.

To comply with the NCAA’s Title IX participation requirements, a school must meet one of three tests: to provide participation opportunities for women and men that are substantially proportionate to their respective enrollments of full-time undergraduate students; demonstrate a history and continuing practice of program expansion for the underrepresented sex; or fully and effectively accommodate the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.

With an undergraduate enrollment of 9,046 (4,600 male, 4,446 female), FSU does not meet the first test but does meet the other two.

“We’ve certainly demonstrated expansion in opportunities where we’ve enhanced the women’s side, like a new softball scoreboard, a new volleyball scoreboard, and we’re putting in a new soccer field,” Weisenburger said. “We’ve got a pretty good list of some things we’ve done and we’ve added scholarships to some women’s sports. We’ve added some operating budget for some women’s sports and we’ve added recruiting money to women’s sports. We are aware through proportionality, we probably won’t meet that prong, so were going at it through the other way meeting through expansion.”

Weisenburger said having equal participation between male and female students is difficult at FSU because the institution dropped women’s swimming and diving, and track and field in 1994. Both men’s and women’s track and field were reinstated in 1999, however.

“My understanding is, if you’ve dropped a women’s sport in the past 25 years, you’re going to be hard-pressed to meet that proportional scale.”

The university is continuing to search for ways to develop women’s athletics. FSU conducted an internal gender-equity study in July 2015 for long-term plans to invest equal dollars.

“What came out of our report really was to consider down the road the potential of adding a sport and to exercise some roster management,” Weisenburger said. “That would be, instead of football carrying 120 players, they would carry 110. Instead of volleyball carrying 16, carry 18 or 19. Softball instead of carrying 19, carry 25.

“The university, however, is very careful to not give a women’s sport something that the men don’t have. So for men’s and women’s basketball, let’s say the scholarship limit is 10 for both and both are at eight, they wouldn’t say, ‘Let’s give two more for women to get to 10.’ When you have comparable sports like that, we don’t have a lot of that, but the university is careful not to give the women something the men don’t have. But we are trying to catch the women’s budget up to where the men are.”

When asked if there are thoughts about eliminating any men’s sports to become more Title IX compliant, Weisenburger said that is not likely.

“I don’t think this university wants to get to a gender opportunity balance by eliminating opportunities for anybody,” he said.

But Weisenburger did say there are discussions of adding a women’s sport.

“I think it’s too early, but we’ve done some studies,” he said. “We have to take into consideration where are we going to get our student-athletes from. That is primarily from Michigan, so then the question is does that sport have a strong base in the state and the high school athletic association? And does the GLIAC offer that sport? You could add women’s crew, and a lot of Big Ten schools have done that because you can add a varsity team and a JV team and add 60-70 female athletes, but there aren’t any GLIAC schools who offer crew, so who are you going to compete against?”

Weisenburger mentioned lacrosse is another possibility.

“That is certainly one that would be a consideration,” he said. “You would have to add based on where are you going to be able to recruit and what type of investment do you need. And we look at what type of numbers it would give us too, what would we need to make an initial investment, so you really have to study.”

In the meantime, FSU still will continue to stretch every resource to remain competitive.

“The university supports us a lot more so than when I first arrived,” said Weisenburger, who took over as athletics director in 2010. “You could look at the subsidies and say Ferris is getting a pretty good bang for its buck. I think that’s kind of the foundation of Ferris State. You are going to get an opportunity to have success and get a good education.”

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Posted by Ryan Zuke

Ryan is the sports editor for the Big Rapids Pioneer, covering local prep sports and Ferris State athletics. He can be contacted at (231) 592-8363 or rzuke@pioneergroup.com.

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