Trev Alberts knows that University of Nebraska at Omaha Maverick sports will never be a cash cow, but he believes the university can profit from athletics in other ways.
An income statement provided by UNO shows that in the 2018-19 budget year, the UNO athletic department needed slightly more than $6.1 million in subsidies from the university, down from $8.7 million in 2015-16.
Alberts, UNO’s athletic director, said most college sports departments require subsidies from their institutions. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln athletic department is one of the few in the country that makes a profit and shares it with the rest of the university.
Alberts, who played linebacker for the Huskers and in the NFL, said the value of Division I sports can’t be assessed in dollars. UNO sports give the campus an identity and athletes a chance to compete. Sports give students an opportunity to let off tension and to back their school, and give the community an attachment to the campus, he and others said.
He became UNO’s athletic director in 2009 and made big, controversial decisions. He eliminated UNO football and wrestling in 2011 and moved Mav sports into Division I.
The Mavs have had mixed success in the top division, almost qualifying in 2017 and 2019 for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Mavs made hockey’s Frozen Four in 2015 and won the Summit League men’s soccer title in 2017. They qualified for the NCAA baseball tournament last spring.
“It would be great if they had more financial independence,” said UNO Chancellor Jeffrey Gold. But Gold said he was proud of his athletic department and had plenty of confidence in Alberts.
Gold said it is “always a dynamic balance” between the money put into college sports and the benefits derived from them. He said backing athletics is similar to support for theater arts and music. Those activities, he said, belong in an excellent metropolitan university.
When Gold arrived six years ago, “Baxter Arena was a dream,” he said. But it has come to life with commencement ceremonies, a president’s visit, concerts and athletic events, and by hosting the U.S. Olympic Curling Trials two years ago, he said. Baxter opened in 2015.
The arena in 2018-19 received a university subsidy of $199,000, the athletic department’s documents show, down from UNO support of $1.48 million in 2015-16.
Brent Meyer, UNO’s executive associate athletic director, said Baxter “allows us to generate revenue outside of athletics” with concerts and other events.
And when performers don UNO jerseys or T-shirts, as rapper Nelly and teen musician Jojo Siwa did this year, Meyer said, that gives the school powerful social media exposure. “You can’t measure it,” he said.
Meyer said that in 2018, more than 400,000 people attended events at Baxter. They would have gone elsewhere without Baxter or wouldn’t have come to Omaha at all, Meyer said.
Dan Shipp, UNO and NU Medical Center vice chancellor for student success, said UNO has transformed itself from a commuter school to a metropolitan university. Building a vibrant campus community with university activities is important to improving graduation rates, he said. And intercollegiate sports are part of that, Shipp said.
UNO’s six-year graduation rate was 53.6% among first-time, full-time students who started in 2013, he said, up from 40.1% among those who started in 2000.
“That speaks to the culture and community that we’re working to grow at UNO,” Shipp said. Besides sports, that sense of community and better graduation rates have been built with the construction of more residence halls and facilities, and by providing support services for students, he said. UNO built its first residence halls in 1999.
UNO Faculty Senate President Matt Hale said nonacademic events present “engagement opportunities with the campus and broader Omaha community.”
Hale gave a measured view of the passion for sports. The importance placed on sports “is not in any way a UNO issue, more of a societal one, really, but I think it is always relevant to step back and ask why we glorify sports so much more highly than the sciences or the arts,” Hale said in an email.
A couple of years ago, then-NU President Hank Bounds expressed concern about how much UNO’s athletic department had to be subsidized. Among other things, Bounds said in October 2016 that overspending on team travel, equipment, supplies and sports administration “effectively wipes out the cuts that were made” by UNO athletics.
Alberts recently said the university was under budget pressure at the time because of declines in state support. “He was faced with a very difficult situation,” Alberts said of Bounds. Everyone was “counting every single penny” back then, he said.
Athletic department expenses are complicated by the fact that there are different ways to calculate them. NCAA financial reports show a higher institutional subsidy for UNO sports because those reports add tuition scholarships for athletes to the total.
A World-Herald analysis in 2017 found that student fees directed to sports plus university subsidies placed UNO in the middle of nine schools selected by the NU system as comparison schools. Those include Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Cleveland State, Arkansas-Little Rock, Northern Illinois, Portland State, Texas-San Antonio and North Carolina-Charlotte.
Discussions with a smattering of randomly selected UNO students (nine in all) generally showed a moderate level of support for Maverick sports.
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“I’d like to go, yeah,” said freshman pre-nursing student Melissa Bultez, an Omahan, “but I just don’t have time.”
Danyell Price, a sophomore in business administration from Omaha, said she’s a member of the Maverick Maniacs, a student spirit squad, and a supporter of UNO sports.
“Yes, of course,” she said. Price said she’s made it to some men’s and women’s basketball games. “Of course I do, whenever I’m free.”
And doctoral student Chris Jodis, a Georgian, said he knows from experience that sports can be good for students. His golf career at a college in California taught him how to face adversity, the value of hard work and the importance of time management, he said.
Jodis hasn’t been to any Maverick sports events but expects to see some hockey games at Baxter Arena.
Alberts and Meyer gave upbeat assessments in a recent interview about the department, its finances and Baxter Arena.
“I’m just so proud of what our little department and our staff is able to do,” Alberts said. “I could not be more proud of where we are today.”