When UNO dropped wrestling and football in 2011 and took its other sports teams up to Division I, Chancellor John Christensen called the moves necessary to resolve the athletic department’s finance “nightmare.”
But after UNO’s first year as a full-fledged member of Division I, it’s clear that competing at the NCAA’s highest level can also produce some scary budget numbers. The Maverick athletic department finished the 2015-16 budget year with a $1.8 million deficit.
Christensen and UNO athletic director Trev Alberts certainly don’t believe the numbers show the Division I move was a mistake. They said they knew the transition would pose financial challenges, in part because it will take time for the school to see all the benefits that can come with its new status.
“When we made the decision, it was clear to me this would be a benefit for the entire campus, but there were going to be startup (costs) with that,” Christensen said.
Last year’s deficit added to a $700,000 debt the department had already been carrying, dating to a $1.4 million fee the school had to pay to the NCAA to begin its transition to Division I. The combined $2.5 million debt has been covered by general university cash flows but eventually will have to be reconciled, officials said.
Lots of elements made up last year’s red ink, starting with the school’s new arena not generating the profits expected.
Any arena profits were to flow into the athletic budget for other purposes. While the pro forma had called for the arena to make roughly $400,000, by the time Alberts put together his budget the expected gain had climbed to over $500,000. Those dollars never came in.
Operating and personnel costs were also $800,000 above projections.
Alberts said Division I schools such as UNO that don’t receive big TV money like those in the major conferences will always face budget challenges. But he said he still wants UNO athletics to balance the bottom line — including in the current year.
This year, UNO made $600,000 in budget cuts. It also is projecting a $400,000 increase in NCAA and conference revenue and $350,000 in added ticket dollars.
Like all other non-Power Five schools, UNO athletics relies heavily on campus subsidies each year to support the school’s sports programs. The department is set to receive $8.6 million in direct campus support this year, up over $300,000 from a year ago.
Overall, fan attendance for UNO’s two key revenue sports improved last year. Hockey sold out many games and averaged more than 6,900 fans, the fourth-highest attendance in college hockey.
Long-lagging attendance at UNO men’s basketball games spiked from 1,400 per game to nearly 2,300. That was among the highest growth in both numbers and percentage of the more than 350 Division I schools.