You may be aware that there was an attempt to cut the UAA Ski Team in 2016. We launched a big campaign to save the team, complete with letters to the editor, phone calls to people in positions of power, public testimony and even a big splashy rally at the Loussac Library with a stage, a DJ, food trucks, and an outpouring of Ski Team supporters. In the end, the Ski Team didn’t get cut. And the main reason that the team didn’t get cut was because cutting the team likely would have caused far bigger problems for the athletic department than the budget problem presented in the first place. According to the official minutes from the Board of Regents meeting on November 11, 2016, UA President Jim Johnsen explained: “So, to bring down the cost of our programs, we asked the NCAA for the waiver. We learned yesterday that the NCAA did not deny or grant our request. Essentially, the NCAA said it only grants or denies forgiveness rather than granting or denying permission. So, they say, if you want to go below 10 teams, go ahead, and then ask us for permission after the fact. That approach carries too much risk in my view, to all our teams. So, in light of this new information, I have changed my mind about the best way forward for us. That change of mind is supported, I think, by the impressive outpouring of support from the Nordic ski community, and their apparent commitment to seek and provide additional private support for this quintessential northern activity. As a result, I recommend that UA not eliminate cross country skiing and, instead, I would ask the board for its support to engage the skiing community in a collaborative effort to increase private support for cross country skiing. This topic will come up in our presentation on Strategic Pathways later this morning.”
So now, once again, four years later, elimination of the Ski Team has been proposed to solve a budget problem that’s been passed down the chain. The Alaska State Legislature has reduced funding for the University of Alaska system. The UA system has directed the University of Alaska Anchorage to make cuts, and the University of Alaska Anchorage has ordered the Athletic Department to cut $2.5 million. Of course I wasn’t involved in the deliberations that went on in the chancellor's or the athletic director’s offices, but even I can do simple addition. When you add up the Hockey Team’s $1.53 million budget, the Gymnastics’ $448,000 budget and the Men’s and Women’s Skiing combined budget of $580,000, you come to a grand total of $2,558,000 in cuts. Voila! Problem solved, right?
No. Of course not. Because it’s not that simple.
UAA currently sponsors thirteen NCAA sports. NCAA rules dictate that we must have at least ten sports. Again, with the simple math, if you start with thirteen teams and you subtract hockey, gymnastics, men’s skiing and women’s skiing, then you only have nine teams left. Nine teams is not enough teams. Furthermore, the NCAA says that colleges need to have at least two men’s “team sports” and two women’s “team sports” within the mix. Currently, UAA meets these criteria with Basketball and Hockey for the men, and Basketball and Volleyball for the women. All the other sports, including Skiing, are considered “individual sports” even though they, and we, compete for team points and for a team championship. So if you cut men’s Hockey then you’re down to just one men’s team sport. Not the required two. This is a problem.
But existential threats call for focused problem-solving, and that’s why Sparky has been spending 25 hours per day at the Senatorial Desk for the past couple of weeks, doing research, making phone calls, seeking expert advice, pushing buttons on his calculator and chewing on pencils. Finally, a way forward emerged from the shadows, and then it became clear as it was investigated more rigorously.
Anybody who’s been in Alaska for any length of time remembers the Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament. It was the biggest thing in town every Thanksgiving and the Sullivan Arena was always packed! Many of the best D1 NCAA teams like Duke, Michigan, and North Carolina came to the Shootout at the beginning of the season. And the Shootout wasn’t the only big Thanksgiving Tournament. There was a similar but smaller such tournament at UAF, and there was one at University of Hawaii, too. Meanwhile, there were no such Thanksgiving NCAA basketball tournaments going on anywhere else in the continental US. You may wonder why it is that there was such a preponderance of tournaments attracting all these big-name college basketball teams at Thanksgiving, and why did they all take place outside of the continental US, in places like Alaska and Hawaii? The reason is because legislation was passed, in the NCAA Competition Committee, that allowed for an “…exception for Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico” to allow them to host tournaments in which each participating team would only be charged one game toward their quota of allowable games per season. In a revenue-producing sport like D1 Basketball, it’s to the school’s advantage to play as many games as possible, against the best teams possible, because each of these games generates enormous revenue through ticket sales, TV broadcasting rights, merchandising, and so on. But the NCAA sets a limit on how many games can be played each season. These are supposed to be student-athletes after all, right? The basketball players still need to go to class. So if you were a big name school like Duke or Michigan, you could bring the team up to Alaska and play a bunch of games against high-quality teams, all televised to a huge domestic audience, and get only one game counted against your quota. But why, you ask, was legislation written into the NCAA bylaws allowing Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico such an exemption from the rules that applied to schools on “the mainland”? It’s because of the exceptional cost of travel to and from Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. It was deemed appropriate to give schools in these two remote states (and one territory) a break so that they wouldn’t be quite so disadvantaged when it came to budgeting for travel time and expense.
We’ve been doing a lot of research over the past few weeks. We’ve had a lot of Zoom meetings. We’ve consulted with a lot of people, and some of these people are experts. Based on all the information we’ve been gathering, it is our opinion that successful passage of a simple amendment to allow Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico to use one “individual sport” to count toward the minimum quota of “team sports” is likely. We’ve been advised that this path forward has a reasonable probability of success. Such a change to the NCAA Division II bylaws would allow UAA to use skiing to meet NCAA eligibility criteria. Under this scenario, the entire $2.5 million cut would not be accomplished as requested. But most of it would be. And the University would keep the most athletically successful, most academically successful, and most community and culturally-integrated team in the program.
The “plan” proposed by the Chancellor is not, in fact, a plan. It is a simple cut. A “plan” looks forward and considers likely future outcomes. A plan considers actions that can be taken to mitigate potential negative outcomes. Development of a real “plan” involves going through the due diligence of researching various options and deciding on the best course of action, in consideration of all positive and negative factors. A plan may include a “cut” but a cut isn’t necessarily part of a true plan. And the proposed elimination of the Ski Team does not appear to me to be part of a fully developed, well-researched plan. It was possible for me to punch in the numbers on my little calculator and confirm the math on this cut in about 30 seconds. But what happens after the cuts are made as proposed by that Chancellor? As UA President Jim Johnsen explained in 2016, if you want to violate the NCAA’s requirements, you just take your chances and hope the NCAA doesn’t penalize you too badly. But why would the NCAA go easy on an institution which violates their minimum requirements? The NCAA includes these minimum requirements to support its stated mission. There’s a real reason why the NCAA requires schools to host a variety of sports in addition to the revenue-generating football and basketball programs. The NCAA is committed to hosting a wide palette of sports, the variety of which is determined by a range of considerations including, but not limited to, gender equity and regional cultural considerations. (For example, it’s fitting that University of Florida and UCLA should have swim teams. It’s appropriate that University of Virginia should have a lacrosse team, considering how popular the sport is on the Eastern Seaboard. And it’s appropriate for UAA to have a ski team.) If the NCAA were to allow schools to violate NCAA eligibility standards without penalty, then what would prevent member institutions from simply doing away with all sports except football and men’s basketball? Why spend money on NCAA wrestling, tennis, swimming or field hockey if the NCAA will let you get away with eliminating any non-revenue generating sports that you find inconvenient and expensive? Answer: They wouldn’t. And they don’t. If you know of an NCAA athletic department who ever decided to violate the NCAA minimum team quota or Title IX requirements and got away with it, please let me know. From what I've observed over the years, the NCAA doesn't take too kindly to that kind of thing.
The Athletic Director says that after we drop Hockey, Basketball and Skiing, we’re going to ask for forgiveness for a couple years, and then we’re going to replace Hockey with a sport like men’s volleyball, men’s soccer, or men’s lacrosse. Is this even serious? All of these suggestions are expensive and none are consistent with Alaska’s sports and recreation culture. When’s the last time you went to a boy’s high school volleyball game in Alaska? Do you know any boys or men who live in Alaska and who play volleyball? I’ve been to Huntington Beach. Lots of volleyball happening there. I’ve been to Goose Lake beach too. No volleyball happening there. And when’s the last time you saw some kids tossing around a lacrosse ball down at the Anchorage Park Strip? Answer: probably never. Nobody plays lacrosse here in Alaska. Soccer is actually an Alaska high school sport. Some of our high school kids go off and play college soccer Outside. But where is UAA going to play college soccer games? In The Dome? A couple of years ago a bunch of high school soccer games had to be postponed because there was too much snow on the ground late into the spring. Would any college athletic conference allow UAA Soccer to join them, considering the expense of travel to Alaska? Our research suggests that the budget for a soccer team would be about the same as for a hockey team. So, in cold, wintry Alaska, we’re suggesting solving the budget issue by cutting a winter sport and replacing it with a summer sport that costs about the same amount? Does this make sense to you? Does this plan of action decrease the Athletic Department budget? Does this sound to you like a plan? I imagine a room-mate getting in his car and starting the engine. So you ask where he’s going and he says, “I haven’t thought that far ahead. For now, I’m going to put it in “drive” and push the accelerator, and then I’ll try to figure out what to do next…”
The Board of Regents meets on Thursday, September 10, to make a decision on this issue. We need to let the Board of Regents know that the key to meeting the department’s savings goals is to keep the ski team. The Chancellor’s “plan”, such as it is, is not likely to work. I can envision a likely chain of events leading to a fiasco in which all of UAA’s teams are deemed ineligible for championship tournaments.
Our solution is much better: We will write, vet, and propose a change to the NCAA Division II bylaws. We have already suggested the exact language and you can find it in my August 29 blog post from last week, where it’s highlighted in yellow. Similar legislation has been approved in the past, so there is precedent for such legislation. It then needs the backing of either 15 schools or two conferences. We believe that the legislation we propose would likely be supported by at least two conferences; this change in legislation affects and potentially helps more schools than just UAA and we can think of at least two conferences in particular that would likely be happy to see such a change in the bylaws. It then goes to a full NCAA D2 vote. But this process takes time – about a year and a half. This is because the legislation cannot be proposed until July 15, 2021. It then would need to be endorsed by two conferences by September 1, 2021. It would then be voted on by the NCAA D2 membership in January 2022 and go into effect for the following academic year. We need the Regents to know that we have a good plan, but it will take about a year and a half to implement.
If you think that UAA should have a ski team, it is critically important that you contact your favorite regent and explain to them why it is in the best interest of the UAA Athletic Department budget to keep Skiing. Let them know that keeping Skiing actually saves far more money than what has been proposed by the Chancellor, and is the best and most cost-effective way to keep UAA in compliance with NCAA rules. Explain to your favorite regent the problems that will certainly arise if UAA takes the action proposed by the Chancellor. Explain to them that keeping the Ski Team is actually the key to the budget puzzle.
The decision by the Regents is on Thursday. That’s only a few days away. If they vote to cut the Ski Team, then that’s the end of the line for us. There won’t be a second chance. Encourage them to express their firm commitment to keeping the Ski Team, now, on Thursday.
This blog is usually full of half-truths, exaggerations, tall tales and outright lies. But I’m serious about this. I’m not joking.