This is the third in a three-part series examining the financial state of the Cornell Athletics Department.
In an effort to weather the economic storm without eliminating any of its intercollegiate programs, the Cornell Athletics Department has launched an initiative to make all 11 self-funded teams entirely self-sufficient within the next five years.
“A lot of our academic departments have suffered the loss of majors, and some have just had majors [subjected to] reduced funding,” said Athletics Director Andy Noel. “In that whole process of cutting back and tightening the belt, what we did in Athletics, instead of looking at sports to eliminate … we decided to have a plan reviewed that suggested that we take a period of time that’s not too lengthy and rally the troops, and put these programs in a place where they have security, financially.”
More than 15 years ago, prior to Noel’s arrival as an associate AD, the University faced a similar scenario that necessitated scaling back in all areas. At the time, the suggestion was made to reduce the number of varsity programs at Cornell. However, according to Noel, then-Athletics Director Charlie Moore ’51 did not wish to pursue this option, instead electing to have a cohort of teams — those deemed most able to carry their own freight — pay their own bills, “so that we don’t lose those programs for our students.”
These teams, designated as “self-funded,” include men’s and women’s polo, sprint football, baseball, men’s and women’s squash, golf, men’s and women’s tennis, equestrian and lightweight rowing. The aforementioned programs sustain themselves through a combination of annual giving, interest from endowment, and any other fundraising activity they might be involved in. Noel mentioned that a couple sports will host a clinic over the winter — the income from which is part of a revenue stream to help with self-funding. As another example, he cited equestrian head coach Chris Mitchell, who gives lessons at the Oxley Equestrian Center.
“[Mitchell] provides these lessons to our students, and the income he gets from providing lessons goes towards his program, towards them paying their bills,” Noel said.
Among the sports that have proved the most successful at paying their own way are baseball and sprint football.
According to Noel, “They haven’t cost the department a penny for the last … seven years or so.”
Currently, all 11 self-funded programs are responsible for their direct costs, which include coaches’ compensation, team travel, equipment, uniforms, technology such as computers/handheld devices and recruiting needs. However, as part of this five-year initiative, self-funded teams will not only be required to pay for their direct costs, but also indirect costs.
“Up until now, the term ‘self-funded’ really involved and focused on paying the expenses of the program that are quite obvious … but every sport will have some piece of the infrastructure that they’re served by,” Noel said. “And the concept of ‘fully’ [self-funded] in our minds now includes indirect costs.”
For example, all 36 varsity teams are served by the business and compliance offices, but only certain ones utilize the ticket office.
“Our chief financial person … by reviewing and studying all these functional areas will [determine], for example, there are X amount of teams that don’t ticket, therefore they should not share the cost, but the programs that do ticket — based on how much service they require — will have a piece of that pie,” Noel explained.
He added, “So you go through all these different areas, and you divvy up indirect costs … and then you blend that in over a five-year period, so that after five years you really can say that your self-funded programs are fully self-funded, not just with the obvious direct costs, but with indirect costs — which are their pieces of the administrative structure.”
Noel shares the sentiment of his predecessor, Moore, when it comes to ensuring the continued operation of these teams.
“We don’t want to take a program away from a number of Cornell undergraduates who really enjoy what they’re doing; they’re benefitting from it, the alumni are supporting it at varying levels, and the more connections students have with their University … the better, for a lot of different reasons,” he said.
Noel is confident that within five years the majority of self-funded programs will be taken care of through the normal course of cultivating annual gifts, and those that may not will be helped by a combination of increased endowment payout coupled with annual giving.
“In Athletics you have the opportunity because of alumni, and if you have the time to go out and get additional support … there’s no need to eliminate an opportunity for a group of students who want to be involved in a particular sport if all the bills are paid,” he said. “That was our rationale, which was embraced by the individuals on campus who have to make those kinds of decisions … they gave us time to cover those costs instead of having to eliminate programs, like some other areas of campus were forced to eliminate segments of their operation.”
Original Author: Alex Kuczynski-Brown