UNLV’s athletic department for years had the safety net of knowing if it exceeded its budget, the university could cover the deficit at the end of the fiscal year.
Soon, that no longer will be the case.
The university and athletic department are working on a plan that calls for university support to come at the beginning of the fiscal year, a change that probably will take place next year.
“We don’t have all the answers figured out yet, but we want to make that transparent and proactive and then hold us accountable,” said athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois, who was hired in April.
UNLV President Len Jessup said changing the funding system was top of mind while searching for an athletic director, and the subject was discussed during the interview process with Reed-Francois. Budgets for other parts of campus are funded on the front end, he said.
”When we brought (Reed-Francois) in for an interview up in Salt Lake City, as soon as she arrived, we began talking about how we would handle budgets,” Jessup said. “And this framing of the budget was immediately part of our conversations. Rather than wait until the last of the year, I wanted to work with her beforehand on what that budget was going to look like.
“I think for any manager in any kind of organization, that’s healthy. It causes the manager to act responsibly and be diligent about what they do.”
Jessup also has given Reed-Francois latitude to restructure the business office, and on Nov. 21 she hired Marcus Bowman as chief financial officer and Michelle Edwards as associate athletic director for business services. Rather than go through the university’s vice president of finance and business on financial matters, the athletic department will have more control over its purse strings.
How much university support will be provided is undetermined, but Reed-Francois said it would be similar to the $5.1 million the institution contributed last fiscal year, which ended June 30. She pointed out that amount was below the Mountain West average of $8.6 million and the typical Group of Five school of $9.1 million, numbers UNLV also provided in a report to the Nevada Board of Regents.
“We’re certainly not asking for that type of investment,” Reed-Francois said. “We just want to have it on the front end so we can budget for it instead of going to the university at the end and saying, ‘Hey, we didn’t meet our budget.’ ”
Attempts to reach regent John T. Moran, who chairs the ad hoc athletics committee, for comment regarding the new funding plan were unsuccessful. Trevor Hayes, the committee vice chairman, said he didn’t want to comment.
Reed-Francois and Jessup said they would like to come up with a funding amount in the spring to use for future athletic budgets. UNLV’s athletic budget is almost $38 million for this fiscal year.
Given the gap in university support between UNLV and other similar schools, it’s possible the size of the subsidy could increase in future years.
“It’s probably too early to say,” Jessup said. “I don’t think we’re going to deviate much from where we were last year, but those comparisons show you there’s a lot of head room with what a lot of other Mountain West schools are doing.”
Breaking it down
The money the university provided last fiscal year closed a budget deficit that originally was projected to be $3.5 million. Four factors went into the projection:
— Lack of a big-money guarantee football game, which would have accounted for up to $1.3 million.
— The men’s basketball coaching staff changeover, which was just more than $1 million.
— Anticipated drop in ticket sales for a rebuilding men’s basketball program, which was approximately $500,000.
— Introducing full cost of attendance, money for expenses that go beyond a basic scholarship, which was $800,000.
The deficit, however, ballooned to $4.9 million because of even lower than expected ticket sales for men’s basketball and football.
Finding a way to increase ticket sales for football and men’s basketball is likely to continue to be a challenge, and full cost of attendance now is a reality that must be factored into annual budgets.
The basketball transition, however, won’t take as big a hit, though former coach Dave Rice is still owed $600,000 as part of his buyout package.
The football team will play big-money games the next two seasons, but most of the focus turns away from such single-game trips and to scheduling home-and-homes. UNLV has home-and-home arrangements in place with three Pac-12 Conference schools: four games against California and two each against Arizona State and UCLA.
“We have talked, and I know (Reed-Francois) wants to bring in great football teams here, especially with the new stadium,” football coach Tony Sanchez said. “It’s kind of a balance. You’re probably going to play two Power Five schools a year. You’d like to have (an FCS) school and a non-Power Five school. I think that’s probably what every non-Power Five school is facing.
“We’re not just going to visit, but teams will be coming here to Las Vegas. That’s a big deal.”
In basketball, the strategy is to tailor the schedule to the expected team strength. Reed-Francois and coach Marvin Menzies know the fan base wants to see high-quality opponents that include teams such as Arizona, which visited the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday, on a more regular basis.
“You start winning, you play some bigger teams,” Menzies said. “You always want to grow your kids so that they have some confidence and they gain confidence, and you play people that can keep the butts in the seats, so to speak.
“It’s an art all in itself of looking at the moving pieces and coming up with something that fits everybody. You’re talking about the fans. You’re talking about the players. You’re talking about the administration, the community. There’s a lot that goes into it.”
Reed-Francois handled men’s basketball scheduling at Tennessee, where she was the senior associate athletic director from 2008 to 2013.
“I’ve had good conversations with the folks at ESPN, and that’s a work in progress, but it’s critically important for our fan base, for our competitive future, for the revolution of the Runnin’ Rebel basketball program and our budget,” she said. “So I need to be involved, and I expect to be involved, and I am involved.”
Beyond the numbers
Winning is the easiest answer to solving budgetary concerns but not the only one.
UNLV’s marketing department was a regular source of turnover going back well before Reed-Francois. She hired Megan Caligiuri in August to run the department, and Reed-Francois emphasized the importance of promoting the department’s 17 programs and 480 athletes, saying, “We need to tell these great stories.”
UNLV also surveyed football and basketball ticket holders for ideas on how to improve the game-day experiences, leading to less commercialization and more fan interaction.
For football games, the athletic department created the Rebel Village for students, where DJs played music and nonalcoholic drinks were served. Students received free round-trip transportation to Sam Boyd Stadium.
A seven-point plan was created to improve the experience at basketball games from better traffic control to more food offerings.
The #UsNowLV” campaign, spearheaded by associate athletic director for communications Andy Grossman, also is integral to the new marketing approach of better aligning UNLV with Las Vegas in the community.
“We thought about what we’re trying to do here in terms of the culture, and that’s build a team, and that’s what the ‘us’ is,” Reed-Francois said. “Create a sense of urgency because that’s what Vegas is about, right? People have an idea, they’re going to get it done. So that’s the ‘now.’ Also, really incorporate the greater Las Vegas community. And so ‘UsNowLasVegas’ resonated.”
But Reed-Francois knows a successful athletic department goes well beyond marketing and winning games and balancing budgets. It’s a combination of all those, but it’s more difficult to take care of the first two priorities without proper attention to the bottom line.
“The budgets were already established when I got here,” Reed-Francois said. “I was able to make a few small, incremental adjustments, but our fiscal year (2018-19) is where we’re going to be able to really have the opportunity to really take a deep dive. We’ll have gone through our strategic planning process so we can align our expectations and our resources accordingly.”