(EDITOR’S NOTE: Shawn Campbell, a journalism and mass communication major who graduated May 17 from St. Bonaventure University, devoted his senior capstone project to the financial challenges of athletic spending at SBU. This is the last in a three-part Sunday series exploring the future of St. Bonaventure athletics. Today’s installment examines the vision of the SBU Athletic Department and new Athletic Director Tim Kenney.)
When a committee searched for a candidate to succeed Steve Watson as St. Bonaventure University’s athletic director, one skill was of utmost demand.
“The consistent thing from a committee (standpoint) was fundraising,” said Bonnies women’s basketball coach Jim Crowley, who was part of the search committee. “Someone to generate more revenue and resources coming in. The school has a high percentage of the budget that goes to athletics, but that number continues to decrease and they want to decrease it even more, and the only way to do that is through fundraising.”
Tim Kenney’s fundraising track record at Massachusetts made him the choice to lead Bona’s Athletic Department at a time when keeping pace financially has become more and more difficult.
“The challenge is finding funding mechanisms that allow athletics to be viable at universities the size of St. Bonaventure,” said Dan Collins, who serves on the university’s Board of Trustees Athletics Committee. “Those funding mechanisms are likely going to have to be separate from the university budget as a whole. The university budget as a whole will not be able to sustain the rapidly rising cost of athletics as a proportion of a budget.
“In the future, we’re not going to be able to fund athletics solely on the backs of students.”
At UMass, which has an athletic budget more than triple the size of Bona’s, Kenney secured a $10 million gift. “He was popular among the donors and UMass fans, in general,” said Matt Vautour, who covers UMass athletics for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
By comparison, the largest donation ever made to St. Bonaventure athletics is $1 million.
Selling Bonaventure to donors, Kenney said, entails telling a story properly.
“Everyone who comes here, who’s an alum if we’re talking to alums, they know the special place that it is,” Kenney said. “That term is used a lot by alums: ‘It’s just a special place.’ What they don’t know is how to make the place more special. By planning correctly and then shaping our message going out as to why we’re doing this, that’s how you begin the fundraising process.”
For example, explain why installing an artificial turf softball field and upgrading the Reilly Center is needed, whether it be to keep up with the rest of the Atlantic 10, aid recruiting or enhance the fan experience, he said.
“I don’t know that it’s been done here that way yet,” Kenney said. “From what I’ve gathered, it hasn’t. It’s always been done as, ‘We need to do this, we need to do this.’ But why? As a whole, what are we trying to do? I think that story will make it unique and different from what’s been done in the past.”
Collins said, “We have to educate the alumni in particular that if you want successful Division I athletics, you need to participate in that process. You can’t assume other people will do it for you.”
Atlantic 10 newcomer Davidson, with 1,850 students, is only slightly larger than Bonaventure, the smallest conference member. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis, Davidson spent $12.1 million on athletics in 2013-14 — its final year in the Southern Conference — compared with $9.5 million spent by Bona.
Davidson Athletic Director Jim Murphy said efforts to increase athletic spending there rely on fundraising, too.
“There are only a certain number of variables that you can increase dramatically at any point in time,” he said. “Tuition, of which an athletic program could get a fee from, especially if they’re at a public school. ... Schools at our level are not making dramatic amounts of money in selling tickets. We’re probably making some revenue but not a lot from corporate sponsorships. So really, once you get past that, the only thing that’s left is going to be fundraising, or the school has to step up and fund athletics at a greater level but that’s hard to do when tuition’s not increasing.”
It’s the case for institutions of all sizes, said Saint Peter’s Athletic Director Joe Quinlan, an Allegany native.
“If you’re Ohio State or Saint Peter’s, everybody’s always looking to make sure that you’re able to maximize the resources that you have and utilize the funds that you have available efficiently and well and responsibly,” he said. “And I don’t think that that’s just specific to athletics, either. With the way enrollment is at pretty much every place, that’s a very important consideration that you have to factor in all of the time.”
For Kenney, upgrades to facilities are a priority. He would like to ensure that each team has its own locker room because some teams currently share. He said plans are in place to seek a donation for a video scoreboard “to jazz up the Reilly Center.” Securing the final funds for the softball turf field is also important. Coach Mike Threehouse said playing on the new field by next spring is a hope.
Other aged facilities exist as well, namely the homes of the swimming and tennis teams.
Tom Marra, a 1980 alumnus, gave Bonaventure two turf fields, donating $1 million and $900,000 for soccer/lacrosse and baseball fields, respectively.
“To offer our school the opportunity to have facilities that are comparable to what the other schools have, I don’t think it’s a luxury,” said Marra, CEO of Symetra Financial and a former baseball player for the Bonnies. “I just think it’s something they deserve.
“I think the university needs to really protect its asset. I think our position in Division I and our position in the Atlantic 10 is an asset. It’s part of our balance sheet, and we need to protect it.”
In his 25 years on campus, Threehouse said he’s witnessed major changes at Bonaventure. Gone are the days of softball and baseball coaches driving their teams in vans to road games.
“But in a lot of ways, we’ve also stayed still,” he said. “You think about especially women’s sports at St. Bonaventure. There hasn’t been a lot of success in any of them, outside of women’s basketball. The rest of us, we’ve struggled along for a long period of time. We’ve had some successes here and there, but how do you judge success? Is making the Atlantic 10 Championships a success? Or is winning the Atlantic 10 Championships a success? What is success according to St. Bonaventure University? I think that’s what we’re really going to have to define within the next few years.”
Similarly, tennis coach Mike Bates and baseball coach Larry Sudbrook mentioned that A-10 opponents in their sports have become fully funded over the years and Bonaventure hasn’t. Past successes and championship seasons occurred when a more level playing field existed.
Outside of men’s and women’s basketball, which are both fully funded, Bona has difficulty competing within the conference in its 12 other sports, Sudbrook said.
“You know when you come here you are going to be David throwing some rocks at Goliath,” he said. “Every now and then you’re going to hit Goliath in the head and knock him over, and you’re a genius. Most years, you’re going to hit him in the ankle, p--- him off, and he’s going to step on you. So you have to accept that when you come to St. Bonaventure.
“You are rewarded for success here in the other 12 programs with a pat on the back, going, ‘Good job, attaboy, way to get ’em.’ And you’re not going to be rewarded with additional scholarships and additional funding.”
Allowing Bonaventure’s teams a better chance at being competitive is Kenney’s ultimate goal, though.
“The ideal future would be we’re able to do the facilities upgrades and then increase our resources for our student-athletes to be competitive,” he said. “And when I say be competitive, be in the top half of the conference. I think that’s where we can be. It’s going to take a lot of work but, to me, that’s where I think we can be and we should be.
“If that does come to fruition ... we’re all dancing and we’re happy.”
(Shawn Campbell, a Times Herald sports writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)