Straight from print: AU Athletics lays out future plans
How the University department is gearing up for its next phase
While AU’s sports teams may receive a good deal of praise from the University, the department that oversees them, Athletics and Sports and Fitness, has for years lacked a specific plan for how it will push its multi-million dollar program to the next level.
Led by Athletic Director Billy Walker, the department released its first strategic plan last summer to outline its goals for advancing the program in the next five years. The plan focuses on areas to enhance the distinct experience of AU student-athletes, by pledging to improve tools for academic success and on-field performance.
Now one year into the plan, the arrival of a new University president and stagnation in recent funding could impact the feasibility of completing those plans, in particular improving campus facilities, generating new forms of revenue and finding more money for underfunded athletic programs, such as the swim and dive team.
“[Academics and athletics] are not mutually exclusive, we know that those are complementary and our coaches buy into that, our staff buy into that and hopefully our athletes buy into that as well,” Walker said. “That’s all a part of what we’re saying in the strategic plan, our vision and our mission and our core philosophy. We want to make sure American is branded as American and that we’re unique and valuable.”
Smaller budget, new president could limit growth
The Athletics and Sports and Fitness department’s total budget this year was $14.1 million, yet that still only made up 2.2 percent of the University’s total budget. And that number pales in comparison to other schools in the Patriot League. Boston University’s athletic department had the highest budget in the league last year at $31 million, and Lafayette University, which has the second lowest budget ahead of AU, still had a $17 million budget last year.
This smaller budget limits the scope of the department’s strategic plans for improving campus athletic facilities and funding for student athletic programs.
No member of the AU athletic department is directly involved in the budget meetings, but instead make their requests known to the budget committee, Associate Athletic Director and Business Operations Director Josephine Harrington said.
The department’s allocation of the University budget is divided into two accounts: operating and institutional. Operating accounts, $8.8 million of the athletic department’s budget, are spent on day-to-day costs, including office supplies, team travel, team equipment and department employee salaries.
The other portion of the budget, institutional accounts, totals $5.26 million and is spent on student-athlete scholarships. This school year that fund was distributed amongst AU’s 234 varsity athletes. While scholarship allocations are confidential, it is known for example that none of the 30 student-athletes on AU’s swimming and diving team receive athletic scholarships.
In addition to budget limitations, long term projects like the planned facility renovations and additions may have their timelines adjusted by the arrival of new university president Sylvia Burwell. Walker said the department will have talks with Burwell to see how the athletic department’s facility plans fit with her larger university vision.
“She seems very down-to-earth, relatable, and very excited to support athletics,” Walker said of Burwell. “I’m anxious to start working with her and start moving forward, still, towards greater goals.”
Walker pushes for facilities improvements
Campus athletic facilities is an area in which AU lags behind the rest of its Patriot League counterparts. This is in part due to AU’s location in Washington, D.C. The availability of inexpensive land is more abundant in rural areas like Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where Bucknell University is located, which allows for more facility opportunities, Walker said.
The department’s strategic plan introduces the goal of providing “state of the art facilities,” starting with replacing the turf on Jacobs Field, which has exceeded its usable 10 year life cycle.
“We know where we’re at and we’re realistic on what we can and can’t do,” Walker said of the university’s athletic facilities. “That’s why the things that we’re trying to upgrade are things we can do and that can make a huge difference.”
Additionally, the department plans to add field turf to the University-owned field on the 4500 block of Massachusetts Avenue, though there is no timeline in place for completion of the renovation. Currently, the field is used as a practice facility for the men’s and women’s soccer team and minimal club sport use.
The department’s biggest undertaking is a plan to build an extension onto the back of Bender Arena to relocate the intercollegiate weight room and wrestling room from its current home in the Jacobs Fitness Center. The facility expansion plan would open up new space in the fitness center for the general student body, though Walker admits it may not be feasible to finish the project in the remaining four years of the plan.
“[The addition of Bender Arena] will free up those two spaces [in Jacobs], which really more than triples the area right there,” Walker said. “And that’s going to benefit the student body.”
To help finance all these endeavors, the plan also includes goals to expand revenue generating opportunities by identifying new donors and sponsors for the athletic department. Associate Athletic Director and Director of External Relations David Bierwirth said the University’s revenue generation can be divided into four sectors: sponsorship, ticketing, facility rentals and donations.
Money from AU Athletics’ donor group, Eagles Club, makes up the majority of revenue taken in by the department, Bierwirth said. Members of Eagles Club are annual donors to the athletic department, and benefit levels for members are determined based on total annual donations. The donation levels range from $25 per year to over $2,500.
Membership in Eagles Club has increased by 40 percent in the four years since Walker began serving as athletic director in 2013. Other factors outside the control of the department, like strong on-field performance by teams, have also helped the donation numbers and Eagles Club membership increase, Bierwirth said.
“Success helps,” Bierwirth said. “If you look at it across the board, of our teams, we’ve had incredible success, particularly volleyball and field hockey and wrestling’s been always very successful and you see the giving for that particular team growing and growing as well.”
While donations have increased over the past two years, ticket sales have fluctuated. Men’s basketball has particularly suffered; game attendance has decreased by approximately 1,000 people in the past four years.
In 2013-2014, when the men’s basketball team won the Patriot League and reached the NCAA Tournament, average attendance at home games was 1,681 people. This season, the average attendance was 604. Meanwhile average attendance at women’s basketball games over the same four year period increased from 350 to 399.
The department is aiming to combat the low attendance by increasing its social media presence and by partnering with student groups such as the Blue Crew and Greek Life organizations, Bierwirth said.
“We’re not asking for 7,000 undergraduates to be here,” Walker said. “But if we have 1,000 of them [undergraduates], it would be unbelievable in there [Bender].”
Department looks to increase scholarship funding
Under the Athletic Achievement section of the strategic plan, the department stated the initiative to “continue to increase athletic scholarships to more fully fund our intercollegiate programs.”
Full funding means that an athletic program receives the maximum number of scholarships permitted for that sport by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Basketball and volleyball programs at Division I universities receive “headcount” scholarships, in which all scholarship recipients receive full academic scholarships.
For example, on AU’s men’s basketball team, all 15 members of the 2016-2017 roster, except freshman walk-on Justin Perez, have full scholarships. Other teams at AU receive less than the maximum number of scholarships permitted for their sport, and the money behind these scholarships is divided up across their rosters.
At AU, the field hockey program receives the monetary equivalent of 12 full scholarships to allocate across its 21 member roster. Meanwhile \the swimming and diving program receives no scholarship money.
The athletic department would like to grow the number of scholarships for underfunded teams, either through budget requests in the University’s bi-annual budget or through privately endowed scholarships. Privately endowing an additional scholarship for a program requires around $1 million, Walker said.
“We have our ideas of where we would like to be able to continue to grow with funding,” Walker said. “Either getting [funding] through an institutional funding or working with development to raise the money for it. Realistically, more of those scholarships are going to come from the institution, but we’re going to keep attacking it from both ways.”
Opportunities for student-athlete development
In the Athletic Achievement section of the strategic plan, the department pledges to “maximize available resources to support our teams’ opportunities to achieve their full potential.” The focus on student health and experience was part of an NCAA-wide initiative to enhance the student-athlete experience, Walker said.
To address student welfare, the athletic department sought to increase funding to enhance the club and intramural sport experience and to offer more resources for varsity student-athletes. The department was able to follow through on its goal to receive more funding for club and intramural sports in 2018 and 2019 and were successful in hiring an additional athletic trainer.
Additionally, the athletic department introduced the service of mental performance coach Brian Levenson. Levenson currently has office hours when students can meet with him, but Walker said the department plans to expand this to include more team-based work as well.
The department introduced a nutrition program at the beginning of 2016, the Eagle Energy program, to emphasize nutrition for student-athletes. The program provided refueling shakes for student-athletes after every weight room session.
“We’re also going to be expanding so it’s not just the Eagle Energy program, but we’re going to have more refueling stations so that [student-athletes] will be able to get fruit and other types of foods.”
To increase the effectiveness and help establish the nutrition initiative, the athletic department will seek the aid of a licensed nutritionist beginning next fall.
The department will evaluate progress made towards the goals in the strategic plan at the end of each academic term, Walker said. The plan will be evaluated based on developments in each area of the plan and the department will determine which areas need more focus in the following academic term.
“One of the steps when you’re doing the strategic plan is planning the last step, which is assessment,” Walker said. “Each of the point of contacts for each of the areas [in the strategic plan] will take their area and start doing an assessment and bring it back to me and we’ll see how we’re doing and adjust from there.”