CASPER, Wyo. — This is only the beginning.
Last month, Wyoming athletics released a strategic plan proposal that outlined facilities that needed to be improved, funding that needed to be raised and goals that needed to be met in the next seven years to elevate the athletics department from relative Mountain West anonymity to something greater.
It was 42 pages worth of need. We need more coaches and staff. We need better facilities. We need money, essentially, and the rest will fall in line.
Most notably, the document proposed that Wyoming add $5 million annually to its athletics budget — $3 million for “competitive success” and $2 million for “staff development” — to help keep pace alongside its conference rivals. For an athletics department that took in just more than $29 million in revenue in 2013, this is no small proposal.
But it also seems to be a necessary one.
Wyoming was ninth in the Mountain West out of 12-member programs in total revenue last year. It also ranked ninth in total expenses and 11th in recruiting spending, according to USA Today’s financial database and the Department of Education.
No athlete, no matter their physical gifts, can survive without food and water. And likewise, athletic programs without sufficient resources will eventually shrivel and die.
Unfortunately for Wyoming athletics director Tom Burman, the university’s funding doesn’t come from a tree in the backyard. Private donations, sponsors and game day revenue help, but the budget is carried largely by state appropriations.
The submission of the strategic plan proposal is the beginning of a long, arduous process, one that may yield more coal than presents under the tree. In the strategic plan’s journey from submission to implementation, it first lands in the hands of University of Wyoming President Dick McGinity.
McGinity ordered all university departments to submit a strategic plan proposal, and the athletics department was one of the first to answer his call.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Burman’s plan will receive a hasty stamp of approval.
“I believe that Tom’s draft was the first or among the very first to be completed, which is terrific, but we don’t even have all of the draft plans in yet from the various units in the university,” McGinity said Wednesday.
“So our next step is to gather some experienced people together and review these draft plans and do some give and take with the deans of the colleges and the vice presidents, and then try to do some integration of these plans, and then feed them back to people on campus and say, ‘OK, this is what we think is reasonable. What do you think?’”
Essentially, McGinity’s group will review the plan, make changes, send it back to Burman for his thoughts, review it again, and on and on until eventually the document is approved.
This process, though thorough, hinders the opportunity for UW to receive added athletics funding from the state in 2015. The next chance for the university to make financial proposals to the state Legislature is late this summer, when a supplementary budget proposal is due to the governor’s office in August.
And at that juncture, Wyoming athletics’ strategic plan will likely still be far from approved.
“I wouldn’t expect that the development of the strategic plan will drive whatever budget requests we might make in the upcoming legislative session,” McGinity said.
Just because the strategic plan is still on the table, however, doesn’t mean the president and board of trustees can’t propose further athletics funding to the state anyway. If approved by the state, said bill would be implemented early next year.
But McGinity emphasized that the strategic plans will not be at the heart of those deliberations.
“Some of the thinking that goes on in the planning process may influence to some degree what we may propose to the governor late in the summer and to the Legislature later on,” McGinity said. “It might influence it, but that would be incidental to the planning process.”
While the athletics department’s needs are apparent and its draft plan is now public, the significant review process provides few shortcuts. For Wyoming athletics fans, that means facing an inconvenient truth:
Help may be on the way, but probably not for the time being.
“I’d stress that it’s very likely that what Tom (Burman) has put down in that strategic plan is something that is going to be discussed over time,” UW vice president for governmental and community affairs Chris Boswell said.
“It’s not as though folks are necessarily going to fall all over themselves to try to get everything funded the first year. First of all, it’s probably not realistic to do that. And secondly, one has to weigh the competing demands both in the university as well as in the legislature for state funding.”
So after all the discussions, revisions and generous applications of Wite-Out, when will the strategic plan finally move from McGinity to the board of trustees?
“The timeline is flexible, because we haven’t really done a plan or a planning process like this one,” McGinity said. “So I’m feeling as though it’s more important to do it right rather than to do it fast. But our target has been to present a proposed final version of the strategic plan to the trustees for approval late in the year. I’m thinking that may be in November.”
The board of trustees
Once McGinity settles on versions of each strategic plan, he will forward them on to the university’s board of trustees for a vote. And once it gets through the board, the athletics plan will finally be made official.
At that point, is there any possibility that the board of trustees will redistribute more internal funds to the athletics department, given its glaring needs?
Yes, but probably no.
Every two years, the state Legislature gives the University of Wyoming money in the form of a block grant to divvy up as it sees fit. In February, that number came out to roughly $405 million (slightly less than $357 million after accounting for numerous line items from the state directing the university how to use certain funds).
That may seem like an astronomical figure, but UW’s general fund standard budget actually decreased by $22.7 million from its previous biennial cycle. And considering the sizable budget cuts, it’s extremely unlikely that funding will be pulled from another department into athletics.
“I would say that we are limited in the extent to which we can move money around, not so much legally,” McGinity said. “But just because of the practicality and the budget cuts we’ve had, we really don’t have any flexibility at all to move money around from place to place.”
So mark that down as another well that is essentially dry. Last year, Wyoming’s athletics department garnered $15.8 million from subsidies — student fees, direct and indirect institutional support and state money. That’s roughly 53.5 percent of its total budget.
If UW athletics does not receive further backing from the state via the supplemental budget proposals or a redistribution of block grant funds, its revenue likely won’t increase significantly in 2015.
After Wyoming’s strategic plan is approved by both the university president and the board of trustees, McGinity expects the document to play a major role in UW’s biennial budget proposal for the session in early 2016.
Where exactly the athletics program falls alongside all the university’s other significant needs is still undetermined. But Gov. Matt Mead says he has seen firsthand what funding for the athletics department pays for and what message it sends nationally.
“Having a successful Division I program is part of UW’s proud history,” said Mead, who also acknowledged that he has not read the UW athletics strategic plan proposal, in an email to the Star-Tribune.
“That history of excellence, in many facets, shows that while Wyoming may be the least-populated state, our University knows what it takes to succeed nationally and internationally — in the classrooms, laboratories and in sports.”
The state could provide funding in a number of ways, including a one-time appropriation, ongoing appropriations or a matching program in which the state would match private donations to the athletics department.
The latter has been a popular funding stream for the university in recent years.
“I think we’ve been really receptive when people also have a plan to help themselves, when it’s not all 100 percent from the state,” said Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, co-chair of the Joint Appropriations Committee. “The matching thing has been well-received. It just makes sense. It’s an investment for the state. The state doubles its money, and the donor really doubles their money. You can accomplish big things.”
Regardless of how the funding comes, Harshman, who is also Natrona County High School’s head football coach, recognizes the value of Division I athletics to the state of Wyoming.
Wins make money, but you also need money to secure wins.
“The world we live in today, with the media attention on college athletics, it’s huge, particularly success and what that brings in,” Harshman said. “You think of current examples — Gonzaga, Butler, TCU, BYU. The role that success has on the number of applications to the university, the quality of students who apply, it’s just millions and millions and millions of dollars in free advertising. It’s so powerful.
“But I think in that whole context, budgets are tight for everybody. Nobody ever has enough money.”
That’s certainly true for Burman, and realistically, major state relief might not come until July 2016. Until then, the department will continue mining for private contributions, which generated just less than $3 million in 2013. The state currently has a matching program to match up to $2 million in private donations over the next two years.
Ticket sales, which brought in only $3.6 million in 2013, will also likely improve by a small percentage with the beginning of a new era in the football program and promising men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as renovations to the Arena-Auditorium.
But regarding UW’s shiny strategic plan proposal, with its optimistic pitch for a $5 million annual addition to the athletics budget for each of the next seven years, that number is just that — a proposal. Decisions are a long way off, and compromise is an inevitability.
“There’s no doubt that the athletics strategic plan is very aggressive, but frankly, that’s what Tom is supposed to be,” Boswell said. “Just how much the university is going to be able to support some of those requests in the near term and then go to the Legislature and seek legislative funding, it’s just going to become a matter of discussion.”