LINCOLN — When Nebraska closed its books on the 2015-16 fiscal year at the end of June, John Jentz said the Huskers spent $36 million on their nearly 600 student-athletes across 24 sports.
That included such essentials as scholarships, academics, travel, equipment, medical support and training table and nutrition. It also included things like laptops, the NU post-eligibility program and testing and analytics.
“And we know that $36 million is going to grow probably faster than most areas just because of the focus on student-athlete welfare right now,” said Jentz, the NU executive associate athletic director and chief financial officer.
And as football season ticket holders received their 2016 packets last week, Jentz said they could feel good about their money going directly to help the athletes they will watch at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska introduced the Student-Athlete Experience Fund as the sole recipient of all donations tied to football season tickets, starting with the 2016 renewal process and sales to new buyers. NU sent a letter detailing that information for boosters and ticket holders, created a video to accompany it and also included inserts in other correspondence with boosters.
“It’s been very well-received,” said Diane Mendenhall, the senior associate athletic director for development and ticket operations. “What this is doing is, the donors just feel ownership, as far as helping these kids not only on the playing field but in life. One-hundred percent of the monies will touch student-athletes.
“It’s just a real easy thing to speak to a donor about, or a future season ticket holder.”
Jentz said Nebraska wants to become more transparent with its football season-ticket process, from providing exacts on all required donations to specifics on where they go. Donation revenue helped with student-athlete expenses in the past, he said, but he added it just wasn’t very defined.
The creation of the Student-Athlete Experience concept was a staff decision, Jentz said, led by Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst.
“All of our donations are going to be funneled through that tool, and that’s going to pay for the things that directly touch the student-athletes,” Jentz said. “We want people to feel that benefit of giving, knowing it’s going to that use.
“It’s not paying anybody’s salary, or going to the compliance office or business office.”
Tom Burnell has been a football season ticket-holder for 15 years and said he never previously asked how his donation was used. The reason it didn’t matter to him, Burnell said, “is that I trusted in the red N.”
Upon his first introduction to the Student-Athlete Experience Fund last year, however, Burnell proceeded to take all of his separate givings to the university and streamline them toward that singular cause.
“Because that gives me a chance to touch 600-plus students,” Burnell said. “I’ve never, never felt more confident about where my money is going than today because of this fund and the overall recognition that Nebraska is about developing young men and women in all sports to be better people, long-run.”
Burnell was New York-born and California-raised but received both his undergraduate degree and master’s from NU in the 1980s. He is a past president of the Nebraska Alumni Association currently working out of Boston.
He said he’s had a “very, very privileged life” because of his Nebraska education and sees this as a chance to help others work toward some of the same success.
“Not everybody is in the same position, and it’s harder and harder to write those checks — and with where the economy is at, I get that,” Burnell said. “But those that question the level of donation that’s required, think about it not as a donation to buy a football ticket but an opportunity to make a difference in a young man or woman’s life.”
Husker football is working on an NCAA-record streak of 347 consecutive sellouts, but the health of that streak came into question when NU announced that 2,000 season tickets would become available June 1 — about 500 more than the previous year. Those ultimately sold during the next eight weeks.
NU restructured its per-seat donations in recent years to help the cause, making some as low as $150 and none higher than $2,500 (some midfield seats previously ranged from $3,000 to $3,500). It also has made some available in North Stadium that require no donation.
Though some donations are now lower, the revenue stream was aided by the addition of seats and suites with the East Stadium expansion in 2013. Overall, 72,340 seats in Memorial Stadium belong to season ticket holders.
Jentz wouldn’t reveal how much of the $36 million is covered by the donations associated with football season tickets but said they represent the largest overall source of the Student-Athlete Experience Fund.
As somebody whose department is directly affected by the Student-Athlete Experience Fund, Dennis Leblanc said it’s hard to express how much the donation money is appreciated.
That revenue recently funded laptops for all student-athletes when they report to campus and the start of the post-eligibility program that helps with athletes later studying abroad or taking internships.
“What it has allowed us to do is be able to come up with new and innovative ideas,” said Leblanc, executive associate athletic director/academics. “I’m not saying we couldn’t have done them before, but maybe we didn’t think it would be possible.”
As with Keith Zimmer in the Life Skills department, Leblanc said the athletic department knows they usually only ask for things “within reason.”
“It has to have a purpose,” Leblanc said. “But if you need something and know it has value for student-athletes, you bring it forward. It allows us to think beyond what we did before.”
Though there might have been skepticism about selling the 2,000 available season tickets starting this summer — with NU coming off a losing season and many college football programs fighting to keep seats filled — Mendenhall said she was optimistic.
“The thing that we found over the years is that the fans are so responsive,” she said. “We were really pleased.”
Mendenhall said there also was a good mix of some buyers looking for 50-yard-line seats and others maybe wanting upper end-zone seats for smaller donations. The Seat Yourself process instituted in 2014 has made it easier to view what’s available and the potential cost involved.
NU first tied donations to season tickets in 1995, and Mendenhall said some previously were “market-driven” when it came to what a person might pay for a certain location. Both she and Jentz said Nebraska now feels as though it has reached a good place not only with its current transparency, but the availability of tickets requiring smaller donations or none at all.
“The sellout streak is very, very important to us, and it’s not only a Nebraska treasure, it’s a national treasure,” Mendenhall said. “So we want to make sure that we maintain that, but we also want to make sure that we’re continuing marketing it to all age groups, and to make it affordable to families, too.”
And those who take part, Jentz said, should feel good about who they are helping.
“The Student-Athlete Experience Fund is really something we’re trying to message to our fan base,” Jentz said. “We want fans to know that what you’re giving is important today, and it’s going to be critically important as we go forward.”