Hawaii football struggling to keep head above water

It wasn’t long ago, seven years to be exact, that Hawaii went undefeated in the regular season, and seemingly every resident of the 50th state followed the football team to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

The program was the buzz of the eight islands, but since the 41-10 loss to Georgia in that Sugar Bowl, it has been on a steady decline.

And now, instead of vying to play in the nation’s premier bowls, the Rainbow Warriors find themselves in a position where the program’s future is at stake.

Fans aren’t showing up as much at Aloha Stadium, Hawaii football is bleeding money, and the athletic department is considering just about all options to find a way to bring in extra revenue to also keep the other sports afloat.

Athletic director Ben Jay is in the difficult position of trying to find that extra money while at the same time pondering cuts that could damage the ability to be competitive.

Jay told the state’s Board of Regents Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics in August that the Warriors needed $3 million from the state to keep the athletic department moving forward.

“There is a very real possibility of football going away,” Jay told the regents, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

That statement generated unwelcome attention nationwide, and Jay backtracked the following day.

“My comments at the Committee on Intercollegiate Athletics’ meeting were made in order to convey a sense of urgency regarding the need to address our current funding model,” Jay said in a statement. “In no way was I indicating that a decision on program reduction of any sport was under consideration. Rather, I was suggesting that the department’s financial situation required that all possible scenarios be reviewed. Hopefully, going forward, there will be a priority placed on discussing the future financial needs of the UH Athletics Department.”

He might have softened his stance, but Jay’s challenge hasn’t become any easier.

For UNLV, which plays at Hawaii at 8 p.m. PST Saturday, the health of the Warriors’ program is enormously important. After UNR, Hawaii is the Rebels’ most intense football rival.

“The University of Hawaii has been a great friend,” UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy said. “We have such a long history with them. It’s a longstanding, great relationship we all hope continues.”

Numerous attempts by the Review-Journal to interview Jay were unsuccessful.

The Hawaii football program helps support the school’s other sports, so dropping it would be a final resort. Football, however, is running $400,000 below projected revenues this current fiscal year — the team is 3-8 — and the athletic department as a whole is facing a $3.5 million deficit.

The university came to the department’s rescue in May 2013 and provided $16 million to pay off a $13 million deficit and other expenses. But the school is facing its own financial difficulties and could make academic cuts, so it’s doubtful it will help put an athletic department that has run deficits in 11 of the past 13 years back in the black.

As part of its agreement in November 2010 to join the Mountain West, Hawaii provides conference teams traveling from the Pacific time zone with a $150,000 subsidy and those from the Mountain time zone with $175,000.

It’s not money that’s easy to come by, but the Warriors had little chance when the Western Athletic Conference was falling apart and they needed a home. They could have sent their football team to the Mountain West or gone independent, which would have been an even more daunting task, largely because of scheduling issues. Because Hawaii had little choice, it also had little negotiating power, and there is no sign those subsidies will come down.

The Warriors will make a little more than $2 million for away games at Ohio State and Wisconsin next season, but they have no such big-money games this year. Fans aren’t showing up in droves to the home games, with Hawaii averaging 27,759, down from the 43,514 average in that undefeated 2007 regular season.

Now Jay must hope the state comes through with money, or he most likely will have to make cuts.

“What we have now is a bare-bones operating budget that is limping along and has hurt our competitiveness and our ability to recruit, and people want us to win,” he told the regents in August. “It raises, I think the entire state, by what we do. And I think we are worthy of the investment.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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