Cal Baseball's Scare Provides Wake-Up Call
The heroic fundraising endeavor to rescue California's baseball program from the chopping block proved to be one of the great stories of 2011. But the university's decision to cut baseball in the first place sent shockwaves through the college baseball world—especially in the economically embattled Golden State.
"There's no question about it: When it happened at Cal, it made everybody sit up and go, 'Well, if it can happen there at one of the iconic programs in our game, then it can happen anywhere,' " UC Riverside coach Doug Smith said. "In talking with our director of athletics and our chancellor, (cutting the program) has never been a topic of discussion here."
But it wasn't a topic of discussion in Berkeley either, until the program was blindsided last fall. So while there doesn't appear to be another baseball program in California on the brink of getting cut, few coaches at the state's public schools feel truly safe—and the state's financial troubles have had a significant impact on many of them.
Colleges and their baseball programs have felt the sting of a bad economy all across the nation, but no state faces a budget crisis like California's. CBS News reported in August that at least 24 other states have cut higher education funds this year, but none as deeply as California, which slashed the budgets for the 10-campus UC system and the 23-campus Cal State system by a combined $1.3 billion this year. In November, Vanity Fair reported that the state's share of the budget for the UC system has fallen from 30 percent to 11 percent over the last 30 years—"and it is about to fall a lot more."
Less financial support from state coffers means more of the cost burden falls on students, who have absorbed repeated tuition increases. According to the UC system website, students contributed more for their educations ($2.97 billion) than the state did ($2.37 billion) this year for the first time ever.
"I think where we've felt the pinch here is with the tuition increases. That's the thing that keeps you up at night," said Cal State Northridge coach Matt Curtis. "It's a big thing when you're talking about 10, 20 percent increases. Our administration is trying to move in a better direction, but it's been a bigger bite, and it's been occurring semester by semester, not just year by year.
"Our kids are going to see the tuition and fee hikes. Most guys are paying some sort of their own way, so everybody gets the bite in some way, shape or form."
The tuition increases make it more difficult for California's public schools to compete with their better-funded competition, especially in Bowl Championship Series conferences. Baseball teams must spread out 11.7 scholarships over 27 players, and that becomes more difficult to do when the cost of attendance increases faster than money for athletic aid.
"Our tuition went up 18 percent last year, so the cost of a scholarship went up dramatically," Smith said. "I think the unseen portion of it is—it used to be, for instance in 2007, a tuition and books scholarship used to be 41 percent (of a full baseball scholarship). Now a tuition and books scholarship is 53 percent. When you start doing the math, that ends up costing you a couple extra scholarships over your 27 guys. So it's not only a budget crisis; the percentages have changed."
At Cal State Fullerton, the athletic department faced a serious budget shortfall when tuition continued to rise but the school's athletic scholarship budget remained stagnant. Fullerton was forced to cut men's wrestling and women's gymnastics to cover the gap. A September report in the school newspaper, the Daily Titan, warned that the Fullerton athletic department was "barely hanging on to Division I status," explaining that the NCAA requires a university to maintain seven priority sports and fund them at 80 percent in scholarships, and provide at least 50 full scholarships outside of men's and women's basketball, in order to maintain D-I status.
"We are dangerously close to not being that far," associate senior athletic director Steve DiTolla told the paper.
Fullerton athletic director Brian Quinn said that he doesn't believe the university would allow the Titans to drop D-I status, but that DiTolla was trying to let students know how serious the budget constraints are.
"He was trying to make the point that, hey, we're in danger," Quinn said. "We're in pretty good shape with our scholarships, we watch it carefully, but we can't take any more hits. If we keep taking hits financially in our department, it becomes a big-time worry. We can't drop anything anymore. We have 15 sports, and you can't go any lower. Is there a crisis out here? Absolutely.
"When the state increased tuition, that's $350,000 for (the athletic department to cover). It's hard when you don't have any football revenue, and the big thing you don't have is television. Those big conferences have so much television money that the scholarships aren't really a big issue. So the big guys have really, really taken over. You can just feel the power of the major BCS schools, with football and television. I think each Pac-12 school gets $20 million just in television revenue, which would be over double our budget."
Distressingly, even all of the tuition increases don't cover the CSU system's budget shortfall. According to the Cal State system website, tuition hikes raised approximately $300 million in 2011, but CSU's budget was cut by $650 million, with another $100 million trigger cut looming, all of which would constitute a 27 percent reduction in CSU state funding. Obviously, the problem is far bigger than baseball, but if the crisis deepens, baseball programs across the state could number among the casualties.
No Country For Crybabies
So what can baseball coaches do to safeguard their futures as much as possible? For starters, they can take an active role in the finances of their programs.
"Some people recruit every day; I fund-raise every day," longtime San Jose State coach Sam Piraro said. "I'm always in the process of either writing a thank you note, trying to generate funds in some way. You build relationships that will be solid relationships year in and year out.
"I've been at this for 25 years at San Jose State. I've had to fund-raise every day I've had this job. When I accepted this job, I remember them handing me the budget. I had come from a junior college, and the JC budget was better. It's come a long ways since then, but the point is we've always understood the importance of fund-raising to make sure our players have the things they need to help them develop. The budget is tough right now, but we've always been semi-self-sufficient, so we're not going to get knocked over by it."
When Piraro fund-raises, San Jose State allows the money he brings in to augment the specific baseball budget, rather than going into a general fund that is disbursed throughout the athletic department. So despite the state's budget woes, the Spartans have been able to build a new batting facility with a roof and lights, as well as three covered pitching mounds.
Sacramento State planned ahead well for the budget battles and increased student fees for athletics a few years ago.
"Our president and athletic director have done a good job looking ahead and saving money in certain areas," Hornets coach Reggie Christiansen said. "Our travel budget continues to stay the same, our equipment budget has been the same. Our budget is very fair. It's not what we're hearing at other schools in California."
Cal State Fullerton tried to raise student fees similarly to cover rising athletics costs, but students defeated the increase in a referendum, forcing the school to cut programs. Quinn said one recourse is to follow Long Beach State's lead and institute an "excellence fee"—a unilateral student fee increase imposed by the president, without requiring student approval. Long Beach generated nearly $2.4 million to help maintain athletic programs by charging students an extra $35 per semester back in February.
"In fairness, the president of Long Beach State spent about two years working with the students to get support before he put that in," Quinn said. "I think he did a masterful job putting that in."
Dirtbags coach Troy Buckley confirmed that the program's "budget's been fine . . . We're in pretty good shape from a baseball perspective." But as recently as May, LBSU president F. King Alexander warned of potential "doomsday" scenarios and suggested that "everything is on the table" when the Long Beach Press Telegram asked if the school might have to consider cutting sports. And that was from the president of a school whose athletic department is in solid shape, relative to its peers.
But if Long Beach could navigate its choppy waters—for now, at least—there is hope for its financially embattled brethren.
"It takes some creativity, but we've got a pretty good staff here," Quinn said. "There's no crybabies. But we do have to keep our eye on the ball. If the university keeps cutting us, and the increases come on top of cuts, then we'd be in danger.
"But I think we're going to weather the storm."