With March Madness over, most universities have baseball to turn to in April.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has not had a Division I baseball team since 1991, even though baseball was the first intercollegiate sport at Wisconsin.
“It’s disappointing,” expressed UW club baseball team president and senior Jalen Knuteson in a meeting on campus this past week. “Because on a nice April afternoon when we finally have spring coming, you go outside and throw the ball around and realize, ‘Oh wait, we don’t have a baseball team.’”
Recently, the club team, led by head coach Jeff Block, issued a 14-page proposal detailing an effort to bring back Division I baseball program to the university. The proposal includes solutions to the Title IX debate, financial options, facilities, and competitiveness (more details on those coming this week).
Block, his coaching staff, players, and alumni drafted the proposal to start a conversation around the community about the reality of the situation and to begin a legitimate push to bring the program back.
“This isn’t the final copy,” explained Wisconsin’s Division II club coach and former Division I club president Billy Calawerts. “We want input from people around Madison who love baseball. We’re just trying to put all of our arguments in one document so we can prove it. It symbolizes our culture as Americans, and I think that not having a team, being the only one in the Big Ten, with one of the best athletic departments in the country that could absolutely support a baseball team. I think it’s frustrating, but complaining about it isn’t going to do us any good. We have to start showing the campus, the university that it’s worth it.”
Division I alumni pre-1991 and club baseball alumni have responded and shared the post on social media. Over 200 people shared the proposal from Block and the club’s Facebook pages.
The proposal caught the attention of former Wisconsin baseball player and UW-Milwaukee coach Todd Feiter, who played for the Badgers from 1978 to 1981.
“It amazes me that there are 14 teams in the Big Ten right now, and 13 have baseball,” Feiter said in a phone interview. “The Badgers pride themselves as being the elite sports program. How can you be an elite sports program without baseball?”
As Feiter mentioned, Wisconsin is the only school in the Big Ten without a baseball program. If you need a history lesson on why Wisconsin has not had a team since 1991, then-athletic director Pat Richter discontinued the program due to financial instability. At the time, the Badgers saved $223,000 per year by ending baseball, stopped any investigation by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights (OCR) into Title IX, and they had the Big Ten’s worst facilities, according to former Wisconsin athletic business manager Alan Fish.
UW athletics’ profits look minimal on the onset, but future earnings and recent expenses suggest otherwise.
In a Wisconsin State Journal story last year, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez explained the reasoning behind not bringing back the baseball program. Referencing finances involved to bring the program to Title IX requirements, Alvarez said adding two more sports would put athletics at a deficit. Alvarez noted that a “report showed an annual operating budget of $1.5 million and $250,000 for a coaching staff.” This also “didn’t include money for a facility…or support personnel for academics, administration and sports medicine.”
In the athletic department’s annual report, the 2014-15 season had $104,253,712 in revenue along with $104,126,284 in expenses, resulting in $127,428 in net surplus. In 2015-16, USA Today had Wisconsin ranked 8th in the country in revenue and 4th in expenses, with 6.3% of the program’s money coming from a state subsidy. That same Wisconsin State Journal had Alvarez expecting a $113,000,000 budget, as indicated in the UW-Madison chart.
According to the Wisconsin athletic department in an October USA Today story, the athletic program gave back roughly $5 million to the university last year. Chancellor Blank asked for $2 million in addition for 2015-16 to make up for budget deficits, giving the athletic department essentially no profit.
The only profitable sports, according to records, are football, men’s basketball, and men’s hockey, meaning the other 20 programs result in financial losses year in and year out.
“Now, if I were running a business, I’d abolish those and run three,” Chancellor Blank said in the article. “But I’m not running a business. I’m running a college sports enterprise, among other things. And I think there is an enormous value to athletics and sports for young individuals, both men and women.”
But what about the approximate $30 million in donor money that the athletic department receives each year? In recent years, that money and endowments has gone to $6 million in Camp Randall Wi-Fi improvements and $31 million on renovating football training facilities at Camp Randall. Sure, some money has been allocated toward the LaBahn Arena (two-thirds raised by gifts) and other projects, but most of the money has been going into the big programs like football since they make the most money.
Just this week, it was announced that the athletic department allocated more money to its football assistant coaches. For example, linebackers coach Tim Tibesar received a $90,000 raise, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. The raise comes in response to complaints that former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was not making enough money, which eased his decision to leave for the same position at LSU.
Then there is the expectation that the Big Ten Network is expecting to give over $40 million payouts per year to Big Ten teams due to the network’s large success. Starting July 1, Wisconsin’s new 10-year, $96 million cash deal (plus retail value of items received) with Under Armour will be bringing in way more money than the Adidas deal. With up to $4 million annually from Under Armour, the partnership is worth five times as much as Wisconsin’s deal with Adidas.
Has substantial money already been offered to bring back baseball? Evidence says yes.
A member of a group of potential donors, who has chosen to stay anonymous, reached out to Block after reading the proposal, explaining that the group offered $50 million to the UW athletic department three years ago to fund a baseball program. Sconnie Sports Talk has obtained this letter. Here is an excerpt from the letter.
“[We offered] Ath. Dir. Alvarez 3 years ago that $50 million to serve as endowment could be raised such that the sport could be financed from the interest. This presumes an average budget for Big Ten Baseball of about $800,000. This single purpose money could be raised for the purpose of restarting the men’s intercollegiate baseball program, and two women’s sports (probably women’s La Crosse [lacrosse] and women’s rugby [or] women’s collegiate bowling) for gender equity.
“The Athletic Director’s response was that ‘men’s baseball is not on the 10 year strategic plan for the Athletic Dept.’ He further said that raising such an endowment would be considered as being in direct competition with other fund raising by the Dept. because it would likely solicit from existing donors to the Athletic Department.”
In summary, a member of this group of donors explains that the group presented an endowment in the high millions to Alvarez solely to restart the intercollegiate baseball program and add two women’s sports, likely women’s lacrosse, women’s rugby, and/or competitive bowling. By offering to cover the two women’s sports, the group was willing to fund the Title IX restrictions in the way. The athletic department did not take the money, as Alvarez told the group that the dollars would be in direct competition with other fundraising by the department. Basically, Alvarez refused to have a conversation and turned down a hefty endowment to bring back baseball because it was not in the athletic department’s 10-year plan.
Of course, the exchange could have been more complicated than this and Alvarez may have had his reasons, but on paper, it appears that baseball is just not something Alvarez wants at UW during his tenure.
Other donors to consider moving forward, including one popular name.
In 2014, former Wisconsin baseball player Steve Bennett donated $7 million to the $86 million Stephen M. Bennett Student-Athlete Performance Center at Camp Randall. Do you really think he did not ask about giving that money to the baseball program? We may not know the answer, but you would assume a baseball alumnus would want to help bring back the program if he had the means to do so.
Essentially, an endowment or group of donors may be the only way the baseball program will be brought back, but that requires Alvarez to at least consider discussing it once again.
A name that comes to mind is MLB Commissioner Emeritus and UW alumnus Bud Selig. In a letter to Block in December 2014, Selig expressed his support for bringing back a baseball team to Madison. Block sent the proposal to Selig this week, and Selig has obviously expressed his support, but he likely will not take the initiative as the driver of the project.
His support would go a long way, especially now that Selig has more time on his hands and even just taught two semesters of his “Baseball and American Society since World War II” course at UW-Madison. Regardless, some traction will have to be made before Selig starts talking and financially supporting the cause.
There has been no response from the athletic department about the proposal.
Within the proposal, Block explains that the UW athletic department has said that “baseball was not a priority for them and they would not help.” Block has since reached out to the athletic department with the new 14-page proposal, sending it to all 14 deputy or associate directors of athletics. He has received no responses.
Still, sources at the UW athletic office have told Sconnie Sports Talk that the proposal has been passed around the office and many support it in-house.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank was also recently sent the proposal. On Monday, the chancellor’s office told Block that the proposal is being shared with Chancellor Blank for review, as she reads all of her email. The office confirmed this on Twitter, but emphasized that this is not special treatment.
The Bottom line: UW baseball’s best hope comes from endowments, but the athletic department must be willing to make that happen.
In July 2014, Arizona State received two donations totaling $32 million, including a hefty sum from Milwaukee businessman Don Mullett, Chairman of Bradley Corporation. Athletic director Ray Anderson had talked about his desire to form a men’s hockey team, and the number that was thrown around was $30 million. The donors responded, and the same obstacles that Wisconsin is facing came up: Title IX, facilities, competitiveness, and revenue. The money was there, and once that was taken care of, other things fell into place.
Every situation is different, but the bottom line is the same: To get something going, the UW athletic office needs to be willing to discuss the issue, as donors will likely join in on an opportunity to bring back a baseball program to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Title IX worries, facilities, and everything else can be worried about once a conversation is started and donor money is acknowledged.
In 2006, during a TV interview promoting Madison’s 150th birthday celebration, Alvarez dropped an interesting dream goal for the following 50 years.
“My hope is that by then we’ve brought baseball back,” Alvarez said.
Maybe baseball will be a part of Alvarez’s next 10-year plan.
Editor’s Note: In the next few days we will have even more on Title IX, the feasibility of facilities – especially in regards to Wisconsin’s unpredictable spring weather, and details on the team’s possible competitiveness. We will provide updates as they come as well on Twitter @SST_WI.