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Athletics at a crossroads?

Several times in UB's history the school has seen it's Athletic department come to a crossroads. Typically they have made the wrong decision and that's why UB, an AAU member and state co-flagship, is the last such institution sitting in the ranks of the mid majors.

In 1903 the University of Buffalo was a small private medical school starting to grow other programs. The school was 10 years into their football experiment and had produced a team which was beginning to turn heads. They were stronger then Syracuse, Hobart, Rochester, and most of the other upstate schools.

Then interest waned and the program dropped until 1915. UB Missed a chance to entrench themselves in the emerging Western New York sports culture while schools like Syracuse grew.

Fast forward to 1960. Buffalo, now a full fledged public university, was officially moving to the major level of college football. in the late 50's they were one of the best small school programs in the nation. Winning the Lambert Cup in 58 and coming in second in 1959.

As the campus and the school grew the anti establishment culture caused student push back, interest waned, the program was dropped in 1970. This time UB missed out on a key era of conference formation and consolidation.

It took an amazing effort by too many to mention in one post to bring UB athletics back from the grave. From division III to division one in two decades, and back to major college football by the time the Millennium changed.

That rush to make up ground left UB underfunded and unprepared for the level of competition they would be facing. They spent their first years in the Mid American conference flailing about and in the process becoming a punchline among college football fans.

In 2008 UB righted a 50 year injustice by going to the International Bowl and bringing the surviving members of the 1958 team to the party. In 1958 the Bulls turned down a bowl invitation because their African American players would not be able to participate.

That same year the mens basketball team, led by Rodney Pierce, tied Bowling Green for the regular season conference title and lost to Akron in the conference title game.

That should have been our "small step for a man" moment. That kind of season, seven or more wins and a bowl game, should have been set as the minimum bar. Athletic Director Warde Manuel tried to set that bar when he was hired in 2005. Manuel stressed to the school that if they wanted to be division one they needed to start acting like it.

The results of the 2008 season was a bump of ticket sales, donations, applications to the University, and appreciation by the Buffalo community at large. The years since have been disappointing ones for UB Fans who waited sol long for that taste of success.

But despite the schools flagship program, football, falling back to three and four win seasons the footprints of that 2008 season have not yet washed away, they are still there and they still show the potential for what UB Athletics can do for itself and for the University.

New director Danny White seems to envision recapturing 2008, and going even beyond that. He has put a timeline on major capitol projects, he has stressed the need for football to succeed even at the expense of a Buffalo cultural icon like Hockey.

With the University examining what their UB2020 push will look like Director White has a chance to make his case that as UB grows athletics can, and should grow with the University.

Now that impressive political hurdles have been cleared UB is finally pushing ahead with UB2020 and are planning how restart and refocus the delayed initiative. Deatails are here in the Realizing UB 2020 document (thanks to RecoveringHillBilly and all the guys at for bringing this to my attention)

There are four goals listed, the last of which is to see UB become a top tier AAU public research university. That goal would put Buffalo on par with schools like Rutgers. Somewhat surprisingly athletics is not just an afterthought in the process. The state of the UB sports programs are one of just eight areas that are seen as having a role in accomplishing this objective.

7. Should UB upgrade the Athletics Program to a peer public AAU competitive level? (Goals II, III, and IV)

*Implement a funding and capital master plan for Athletics that would involve at least the following elements:
*Upgrades to existing stadium and other facilities.
*Increases in grant-in-aid funding.
*Increases in operations support-equipment, travel, coach contract costs, etc…

*Will the achievement of this objective generate sustainable student, alumni, and community support?
*Can sustained success in UB athletics elevate the UB academic profile?
*What are the opportunity costs of these investments?

When asking the question if we should try to match the Athletic status of other public AAU schools the document recognizes only four ways to get there. Fix the stadium, or build a new one and let the track/soccer team have the current one. Spend more money on coaches. Increase aid funding. Finally to improve the equipment and other facilities.

At the end of the day this all boils down to money and oll one needs to do is look at Ohio University to see what a modest improvement in funding can do. They have been steadily investing in their program for about 7 years and went from the cellar to a football fixture and a repeat dancer in the NCAA tournament.

Director white will have to answer the following questions for full buy in from those organizing the projects.

Is all this going to lead to sustainable student, alumni, and community support?

Year Ticket Sales Ticket (% Y-1) Ticket (% ovr 08 Contributions Cont (% Y-1) Cont (% Over 08) Rights / Lic Right (% Y-1) Rights (% Ovr 08)
2011 $994,216 -9.57% 31.30% $384,436 -47.43% 150.43% $2,581,968 10.68% 27.12%
2010 $1,099,425 -15.87% 45.19% $731,269 137.09% 376.37% $2,332,795 4.78% 14.86%
2009 $1,306,808 72.58% 72.58% $308,429 100.92% 100.92% $2,226,270 9.61% 9.61%
2008 $757,217 -2.21% - $153,510 394.19% - $2,031,049 6.45% -
2007 $774,307 - - $31,063 - - $1,907,948 - -

Look at what just one successful year in 2008 did? Some of the numbers have softened with three years of so so performance but they are still way ahead of what the program was just four years ago.

The year following UB's bowl trip saw ticket revenue up 72%. And while loosing seasons have somewhat softened those numbers they are still more than 30% (220,000$) over the 2008 season. That 200,000 dollars is enough to pay for a good chunk of UB's coaching staff. If the 2009 levels had stuck the program would have had pocketed at least another million dollars at the gate.

In 2009 donations more than doubled over the previous year and even with one losing season they doubled again the following year. Currently they are still well over double what they were in 2008.

Finally 2008 saw licensing rights begin a steady, sustained improvement. When I want to UB everyone wore Syracuse and Notre Dame gear, now many wear UB apparel. The university is pulling in a half million dollars a year more today than they were in 2008 and increasing at an average of about 8.5% a year.

If you win people will come. Buffalo is a sports town that loves a good product, they don't need it to reach unrealistic levels of success to buy in. The people of Buffalo fill Rich Stadium despite a decade long playoff drought. They fill HSBC for a team that has missed the NHL playoffs three of the past five years and lost in the first round the other two.

UB does not need to be Boise to get thirty thousand people at their games. They need to be Ohio, a school who's athletic budget is bigger than UB's but certainly is within reach of the University if they commit to success.

The second easy question

Can sustained success in UB athletics elevate the UB academic profile?

Buffalo is first and foremost a fantastic school. Having an engineering school of that caliber in my backyard was certainly a blessing when it came time to look at schools. The Medical School and research centers are among the nations best and having that UB brand on my diploma and resume really opened a few doors for me when I was starting my career.

As an alumni I would never endorse something that would take away from UB's core mission. A successful athletics department is the second best form of advertising that a research institution can get. (the first being the various publications that researches use to publish their work).

Schools that go bowling typically see more applications the following year. UB saw it in the wake of the international Bowl, Ohio saw it after their NCAA run last year, and I suspect NIU will see it in the following season after their trip to the Orange Bowl.

UB's commercials during the international bowl were a fantastic advertisement for the school. They were focused on the achievements of UB's research centers and were seen by more than two million households.

A bigger pool of applications serves UB by helping UB fulfill its desire to surpass 30 undergrad students without sacrificing quality. There with a bigger pool of applicants which will let UB keep the bar high.

The only hard question

What are the opportunity costs of these investments?

The only thing I feel qualified to add to this is that I remember how divided the campus was, and that is both good and bad.

College should be a chance to learn in a diverse workplace with people that you would normally not socialize with. I certainly learned to study and work with people who's political and social leanings were different from my own. By the time my freshman year was over I would have gotten an A in hypothetical course, tongue biting 101 (the art of zipping it).

The down side is that such an environment easily breeds an "us versus them" mentality.

Like it or not sports is as integral to who we are as a people as our music, art, or theater. Sports is a chance for the hard core college Republican and Green party zealot to sit next to each other and cheer for the same team. It's a chance to tail gate and do your homework for tongue biting 201 (constructing common ground).

You can't really put a price on that. It's hard to judge the value of a casual fan coming out and just having fun with their fellow students to root for the home team even if you're really just there for your game day friends. It's also a chance for the university to connect at a greater level with the average Buffalo resident. This was recognized as valuable in the late 1800's and all that has changed is UB's commitment.

Buffalo athletics is once again at a crossroads. Does UB begin to entrench themselves as Buffalo's third team? as the only hoops in the city worth going to? As the best family game day atmosphere for Saturday football? or does the University administration, and the students, stick their heads in the sand and let another 20 years pass UB by?