In tough fiscal environment, does Division I make sense?

When Portland State University athletic director Tom Burman announced in late May that the Vikings men’s and women’s tennis programs were being eliminated, it raised a question about Portland State’s presence at the NCAA Division I level: If PSU can’t afford to keep all of its varsity sports going, maybe Vikings’ run as a Division I school should be reconsidered?

According to Burman and head softball coach Teri Mariani, an associate athletic director until last year, it isn’t in PSU’s best interest to revert back to Division II athletics.

“Division II is a wasteland,” said Burman, who came to Portland State in the summer of 2000 from the University of Wyoming. “We don’t want to be considered second-rate.” Portland State moved up to Division I-AA from Division II in 1996.

“Portland State wants to be considered on par academically with the University of Oregon and Oregon State. What a lot of people don’t realize is that we’ll always be considered a lower-level school if we’re not competing athletically with those schools,” Mariani said. “We would lose a ton of money if we went to Division II.”

Portland State’s athletics budget this year was $7.6 million. As a Division II school, the budget would be only slightly less, around $5.5 million. As a comparison, the University of Oregon’s annual athletics budget could approach $40 million next year.

According to Burman, who can list at least six schools that have announced they are leaving Division II this year, it is nearly impossible to field a competitive schedule as a Division II school on the West coast. Central Washington, one of the remaining Division II powerhouses in the West, had to schedule Western Washington University twice next season to flesh out its schedule. The cost of traveling to Kansas and Nebraska to play decent teams can really add up for a school. “We still travel to Montana,” Burman said. “Even that gets expensive.”

Burman has been forced to eliminate three scholarship sports since 2000: men’s and women’s tennis this year, and men’s golf a year ago. Portland State now has 14 Division I sports, eight women’s and six men’s. The eight women’s sports are soccer, volleyball, cross country, indoor track and field, basketball, softball, outdoor track and field, and golf. Men’s sports are football, indoor track, cross country, wrestling, basketball and outdoor track.

Although there are two more women’s sports than men’s sports, participation levels in PSU athletics are approximately 58 percent men and 42 percent women. While it is a little cheaper for an institution to compete athletically at the Division II level, it would also mean a significant drop in scholarship money from the NCAA and a huge drop in sponsorship money as well, especially since most college sports are not self-sufficient.

“$2.8 million of our budget is self-generated through ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and the NCAA,” Burman said. “It would be $1 million less if we were Division II.”

Nike is one sponsor that was unwilling to support PSU when it was a Division II school. Essentially, the shoe and apparel company based in the Portland area refused to even consider financially supporting PSU athletics until the university started competing at the Division I level.

Now, the company sponsors PSU athletics and does Nike Nights for students, where treats like Nike T-shirts and headbands are distributed to attending students during a few basketball games every year. Division I is also better for the university because of the competition it brings in, which allows the school to charge more for tickets. “In 1991, the average ticket price for football games was $3. It’s $14 today. I don’t know how many people would be willing to pay $14 to see Grand Valley State, and they’re the Division II champion,” Burman said.

Baseball was the first big sport to be eliminated in the early 1990s. Baseball was a tough sport to keep because of the lack of game or practice fields. Burman said it’s typical for city universities and commuter schools to lack on-campus practice facilities. “It’s typical and it impacts our athletics negatively,” Burman said. “But we’ve made some steps. The renovation of the Peter W. Stott Center and the community recreation field has helped.” But Burman feels that tennis at Portland State was a tough sell to prospective students anyway and was the logical choice to face the ax.

“It was a cost-cutting measure. We’re going to lose at least $200,000 from next year’s athletics budget,” Burman said. The relatively poor-quality tennis facilities made it hard for prospective students to buy into the program,” Burman said.

Programs statewide are feeling the pinch of lower revenues. Losing tennis at PSU was almost inevitable. “It’s the financial climate, a sign of the times,” Mariani said. “Portland high schools were very close to losing spring sports.”

“Other PSU sports are starting to make a turnaround. Soccer had the nation’s best one-year turnaround, volleyball is right there and we’ve made the changes in basketball that we needed to make to take the program to the next level. We’ve made the turn in women’s sports.” Burman thinks the idea of Division I-AA at PSU just needs a little more time. “It takes 10 years. Let’s give it 10 years and then take a look at it.”

Burman believes the Vikings are starting to develop some strong rivalries in the Big Sky Conference. “We have a legitimate rivalry beginning with Montana, and there is a dislike growing between the Vikings and Northern Arizona. It seems like it’s becoming more traditional.”

Burman’s vision for the university includes a growing presence in athletics.

“Major institutions in the West have Division I athletics. I want to be the university that’s up-and-coming,” he said. “I want the U of O and OSU to be aware of us as an institution that’s vibrant, one that’s going forward, not backwards.”