Slippery Slopes

Western State seeks to save its ski team with a dash for private cash.

A school can be considered such a part of the community fabric that it's area businesses and citizens who come through for their local college sportsmen. Two years ago, the University of Minnesota announced that in order to cut expenses, it was deep-sixing men's and women's golf, as well as men's gymnastics. Minnesota's administration noted that nearly $3 million would have to be raised to keep the sports afloat in the competitive manner to which Golden Gopher fans had become accustomed. Thanks to the work of local businesses and a widely publicized telethon, the money was raised inside of a year.

Other athletic departments have tried to finesse their programs with development officers by pitching programs to sound more academic than athletic. A handful of schools, for example, have convinced wealthy alumni to permanently endow athletic positions -- like an English professorship, only called a "coachship."

Cornell University, in upstate New York, took this a step further. In the mid-'90s, the school challenged ten intercollegiate sports programs to try to become self-sufficient. Some -- equestrian, for instance -- have struggled to raise money. Others, such as baseball, have flourished outside the school's general fund.

Ethan Wenberg

Already blessed with an endowed "coachship" and manager's position, Cornell's baseball staff sent out a plea to alumni and athletic supporters to endow ten additional player positions. One former player wrote a generous check to cover the entire team. As a result, a talented young freshman infielder might find himself Cornell's 2005 Mike Branca first baseman, or the Marlin McPhail Endowed second base player.

When it comes to finding private money, Western State has been on a roll. Not long ago, it finished its first major fund-raising campaign a year early. Instead of reaching its $5 million goal in five years, as hoped, the school raked in $10 million in four years.

Heartened by the haul, Western's administrators decided to tackle sports, too. Rather than praying for the day when taxpayers would give them enough money for their teams to compete, they concluded instead that relying on legislators was far too fickle a way to manage an athletic budget. "We need to act more like a private college," explains Waggoner.

One reason the ski program was selected was sheer cost. When measured by cost-per-participant, skiing is the most expensive sport to support -- about $10,000 per athlete per year. But skiing also presented the greatest opportunity as a money magnet. After all, schussing is Western State's signature sport -- what the school is known for -- as well as part of the fabric of central Colorado culture.

"Western State losing skiing would be more profound than if Notre Dame dropped football," pronounces Phil Klingsmith. Klingsmith, a former coach at the school, former gubernatorial candidate, and currently a local attorney (his family holds the sixth season pass ever issued at nearby Crested Butte), is president of the Sweitzer Foundation. Named for two brothers from a prominent ski-racing family who died within a month of each other, the foundation has already pledged $120,000 to sustain Western State's skiers.

Paying for the local college's skiers to break away from the state budget "is a daunting challenge," he says. "But it's a worthy one. This is a story that will be written many times in the coming years. Universities will have to look hard at evaluating their athletic programs."

Waggoner, whose entire department has been restructured so that he can spend more time traveling and fund-raising and less time running the day-to-day sports operations, says the program needs about $200,000 a year to compete -- or a $2- to $4-million pot to fund it in perpetuity. "If [we're] successful, [the ski program] will become the most secure athletic program on campus," he says.

The NCAA never met a rule it didn't like, so saving a sport is not quite as simple as passing the hat at the monthly Rotary Club dinner. Schools must consider Title IX, the law that requires schools to have an equal number of men's and women's sports. When the Valley Soccer Foundation proposed collecting enough scratch to revive the Fresno men's soccer program, fans were told they also had to come up with the money to save a women's sport, too. (They did, choosing women's swimming and diving.)

The two-for-one requirement has stymied potential benefactors in the past. Dave Plati, a spokesman for the University of Colorado's athletic department, says every so often a group of alumni proposes bringing back CU's defunct baseball program. But, he adds, their enthusiasm sputters after they learn they must also scrounge up enough cash to support a competitive women's sport, as well.

There is also a hint of cynicism to some of the athletic departments' efforts to extract money from the private sector. Selecting certain sports for extinction can seem similar to the gamesmanship a city embraces when, confronted with a budget crisis, its leaders threaten to get rid of the zoo or trim the fire department. It's probably not a coincidence that Minnesota's deans selected its collegiate golf teams for the ax -- knowing all along that the state boasts the highest per-capita number of golfers, many of whom might be just outraged enough to write a check. Similarly, Western State's ski team is probably far more likely to receive a financial shot in the arm from alumni than its Division II football team, which has no similar storied history to rely on.

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