A new financial approach for college sports?

The end of a subsidy doesn’t have to be the end of the line for a university program.

UNLV and UNR might have to eliminate sports teams to deal with reductions in state revenues. With the Legislature weighing higher education budget cuts that might close entire college campuses, athletics inevitably will share in the sacrifice. Even larger, older universities with much larger alumni and donor rolls and more lucrative television contracts are taking such steps to keep their intercollegiate athletics solvent.

Last fall, the University of California, Berkeley, put its 118-year-old baseball program, among other teams, on the chopping block. The team was a typical “non-revenue” program — generally any sport other than football or men’s basketball — draining the athletic department’s budget of nearly $1 million per year while drawing little fan or community interest. It had become comfortable in its subsidized existence.

But the Bears baseball team didn’t go away when its funding disappeared. Instead, the program fought for survival and embarked on a transformation that, according to The Wall Street Journal, “may serve as the blueprint for the future of college sports.”

The team, with the Cal Baseball Foundation, raised $10 million — enough to cover operational expenses for seven to 10 years — and created a strategic business plan to boost revenues and attendance enough to actually turn an annual profit. Players hustled for every check they could get, even making a “reinstatement rap” video.

On Monday, the Bears were ranked No. 22 nationally by USA Today.

“I absolutely think that in this new financial reality for higher education, we will need to look more to philanthropy and business development,” Sandy Barbour, Cal’s athletic director, told The Journal.

Like most colleges, Nevada’s two public universities rely on taxpayer dollars to prop up their athletic programs. While important to a university’s identity, sports should not be a burden on taxpayers under any conditions. Given Nevada’s economic tumble, it should be a priority to make intercollegiate athletics self-sustaining.

That’s the kind of budget UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood ran at the University of Arizona, and that’s what he ultimately wants for UNLV. He recognizes the importance of having teams raise money to augment their budgets, given last year’s hiring of baseball coach Tim Chambers. Mr. Chambers built the College of Southern Nevada from scratch into a national power, in part, through successful fundraising.

If the 2011 Legislature accelerates the process of weaning college sports off the state, the Cal Bears baseball team has proved it doesn’t have to be fatal. In fact, it could be downright inspirational.

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