Administration explains $10.8M sports budget

It’s not an easy budgetary tightrope to traverse.

Finding a balance between fielding competitive athletic programs and providing a financially stable but valuable postsecondary experience is not a simple game.

No one knows this struggle better than Mercyhurst College Provost James Adovasio, Ph.D., who also serves as dean for the college’s Zurn School of Natural Science & Mathematics.

As provost, Adovasio spends much of his time helping to determine which departments, including athletics, receive exactly how much funding each year.

Inevitably, some areas receive less than others.

He and other college administrators closely weigh a cost-benefit ratio in every decision.

“Every once in a while, we look at a department and say, ‘Wow, these guys cost us a bundle. It’s probably not worth keeping them,’” Adovasio said. “They have ceased to attract people and they cost too much money.”

Varsity athletics at Mercyhurst are not immune to such discussions.

But Adovasio said the school’s 24 Division I and II sports programs play an integral role in the survival of the college. He cited the number of athletes who attend Mercyhurst without a full scholarship as actually helping to balance the college’s budget.

“They still pay a substantial chunk of money to the school,” he said. “If they were not doing so, we wouldn’t be consistently delivering the revenue margin the Board (of Trustees) requires.”

But upon first glance, seeing that the college lists total athletic department revenue for 2009-10 in excess of $11 million is confusing. Few sports generate much of any money through ticket sales, and Mercyhurst does not feature the wide alumni donor base for athletic spending that larger universities do.

“When you don’t have a huge endowment that you can freely plunder … then you have to make sure every dime you spend counts,” Adovasio said.

Revenue, in this case, is actually another term for the college’s cost of doing business—how much tuition money does a competitive athletic department require?

Colleges do not attempt to bury that fact, says Ludlow Brown, Ph.D, who heads Mercyhurst’s Athletics Review Committee.

“It’s very difficult to say where the pieces of a dollar go. Nobody’s trying to hide it,” he said.

Still, in comparison with the yearly sporting expense budgets at Gannon, Edinboro and every other participating Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference institution, Mercyhurst’s $10.8 million athletic budget may seem excessive.

Not even PSAC powerhouse California (Pa.) came close with its $9.2 million athletic expenses in 2009-10.

Adovasio noted the availability of 24 programs—a number higher than any PSAC institution and many Division I universities—and the men’s and women’s hockey programs as being behind the bloated expense list.

He also repeatedly described the athletic department as an important “recruitment vehicle.”

The college became co-educational in 1969, and men’s sports were added shortly thereafter to help grow the school’s male student population. Golf and rowing were the first in 1970-71, and basketball followed a year later.

Forty years later, more than nearly one in four Mercyhurst male students played a varsity sport.

In Adovasio’s opinion, that population, along with the heightened visibility that successful sports teams can bring to an institution, justifies the college’s annual athletic expenditures.

“Were I a student, I’d want to know ‘Is our investment in athletics compromising the educational product we can deliver?’” he said. “I don’t think that’s the case.”