Cornell athletics is increasingly leaning on philanthropic gifts from Big Red enthusiasts to bolster its financial game plan. Under a University mandate, 11 of its 36 varsity sports teams must be fully self-funded by 2015.
Currently, Cornell’s athletics department supports its varsity teams and athletics and physical education programs through three sources of funding: philanthropic gifts and endowments; operating income from ticket sales and enterprises like Cornell’s summer sports school; and funding — or subsidies — from the University, according to Andy Noel, director of athletics and physical education. But by 2015, the University will reduce its financial support to 11 teams, a quandary that leaves the Athletics Department with little choice but to ratchet up its fundraising efforts so those teams can survive.
Because of the reduction in funding, the teams will have to start paying a portion of indirect costs — including expenses in supporting the department’s compliance office, which helps teams follow NCAA rules, and administrative and business costs, Noel said.
“There is a major ongoing effort to raise this money,” Noel said. “We’re visiting alumni all year and on the phone a lot as the fiscal year closes … It’s a real challenge each year to generate the income that … allows us to have competitive teams.”
Of the 11 sports teams, only baseball, golf, lightweight rowing and sprint football currently generate enough revenue and philanthropic gifts for the athletics department to cover all of their expenses, according to Larry Quant, associate director for financial operations.
The others — men’s and women’s polo, men’s and women’s tennis, men’s and women’s squash, and the equestrian team — rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses every year. With the coming reduction in University support, the athletics department, Noel said, faces the task of raising enough money to ensure the teams will remain competitive.
Noel emphasized that the athletics department “has not been asked to do something that was not agreed upon.” In 2010, the athletics department asked to have five years to raise money for the teams so they could be self-funded by 2015.
Additionally, he said that the 11 teams are not among the most expensive of Cornell’s varsity teams and “already profit from endowment dollars and significant annual fund raising.”
The challenge of funding Cornell’s varsity teams has been heightened in the aftermath of the recession, which decimated the athletics department’s endowment. The department’s endowment for its programs shrunk after 2008, leaving Cornell athletics today with $1 million less in annual revenue from investments of endowment funds, according to Quant.
Cornell’s athletics department took another hit in 2009, when the University implemented five percent across-the-board budget cuts, Quant said.
Quant added that, since the reductions in 2009, there were three consecutive years in which the University made additional budget cuts to Cornell Athletics.
The budget cuts and the shrinking endowment have made it significantly more difficult for the athletics department to self-fund 11 of its teams.
Still, Quant said, “we are not complaining about this, and understand that most other campus units have faced similar reductions.”
Echoing Quant's sentiments, Noel stressed that he recognized that the athletics department was just one of several units across the University that saw its budget slashed after the economy crashed.
“We understand that we’re part of the University … We don’t think we’re special, and we don’t think we should be treated better than anybody else,” Noel said. “We accept it as simply the reality of our budget model at Cornell.”
As part of its budget model, the athletics department must support costs incurred in games. These costs are not always obvious to the spectator.
While the sight of a hockey player breaking his or her stick may rouse the cheers of rowdy spectators, it evokes a different thought in Quant’s head: $85. That is the cost of each hockey stick the University purchases for its varsity players.
With each hockey player breaking several sticks a year, Quant said the cost of hockey sticks can easily balloon to $50,000 a year.
In addition to supporting game-day expenses, the athletics department garners significant funds to support its student-athletes throughout the academic year.
“Having a student services unit that can provide student-athletes with academic assistance, having new football helmets that will protect our athletes against concussions and [having] computer labs for them to do their work” all add to the operating expenses of Cornell’s varsity teams, Quant said.
Facing the need to provide such services to student-athletes under budgetary constraints, the athletics department said that philanthropic support from former athletes, parents and Cornell alumni will be critical to its ability to continue to provide such services to its athletes.
In fact, Quant said, annual gifts and endowment income have made up one third of the department’s revenue every year.
As administrators in the athletics department look to meet the charge to make the 11 teams independent of University funding by 2015, they said they will continue to appeal to Big Red fans for financial support.
“It is a fact that the generosity of alumni, friends and parents has been a primary vehicle to bridging the gap in funding that exists,” Noel said. “We are so grateful to them … Their support is yielding positive results for athletes.”