Fresno State’s new athletic director has been on the job barely a month.
Which isn’t nearly enough time for me, or anyone, to evaluate Jim Bartko’s performance. I want to make that chandelier clear.
So consider this more in the vein of a progress report, and since Bartko came here from Oregon let’s use a track analogy: He’s quick out of the starting block.
Since setting foot on campus, Bartko has been on a fact-finding mission that will soon culminate in a five-year plan. He’s met and shaken hands with everyone from Fresno State’s biggest boosters to Save Mart Center ushers. Inspected facilities and read over contracts. Attended luncheons and functions. Responded to emails. Nodded to suggestions and promised to address complaints.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” he said during one of our recent conversations.
Then Wednesday night, prior to tip-off at the men’s basketball game, Bartko waved me into the AD’s suite. (First time I’d set foot in there, incidentally.)
Inside were a few people he wanted me to meet: an architect, construction engineers, a design specialist, plus representatives from the school’s media partners. Bartko brought in each for a quick visit to generate ideas on how to best go about renovating Bulldog Stadium.
Thursday morning, the group of consultants, along with senior department staff and coach Tim DeRuyter, made a thorough tour of the 35-year-old facility with an eye on any and all potential upgrades.
“I just want to know what’s possible,” Bartko told me beforehand. “I just want to know what can be done and what the costs will be.”
There can be no question Bulldog Stadium ranks as Fresno State’s most undervalued sports property, its largest untapped revenue stream, and Bartko deserves credit for recognizing that so soon.
He deserves even more for taking such quick action.
Success in football, and generating income off that success, is absolutely critical to Fresno State’s athletic future. Bartko understands that, without any of his predecessor’s hemming and hawing.
As much as the university profited from the back-to-back Mountain West titles in DeRuyter’s first two seasons, one can also look back at those years as missed opportunities.
Because if Bulldog Stadium had been renovated before Derek Carr was throwing all those touchdown passes, the windfall would’ve been much greater.
Bartko does not intend to let that happen under his watch.
Leading the Mountain West in average attendance, which Fresno State does regularly, isn’t enough these days. The university must also maximize ticket revenue.
The best way to go about that isn’t by increasing the number of seats. Bulldog Stadium has enough capacity. What it lacks are enough suites or any semblance of club seating. Sections for well-heeled fans who don’t mind spending big bucks to be pampered.
Of course, the place also lacks basic amenities such as clean restrooms, convenient concession stands and easy access to both. Anyone in a lower row who develops a yearning for kettle corn, or must simply heed the call of nature, better be prepared for a hike. Up and down dozens of concrete steps.
For some fans, it is too much. Recently I received (and helped forward to Bartko) an email from a 40-year football season ticket holder. Up until three years ago, when his wife had a stroke that left her in a wheelchair.
“She has mentioned it would be nice to go to a game again, but I know the parking and getting in and out would be a problem,” he wrote. “The old timers that are in wheelchairs and walkers are part of the original Red Wave and we still want to support our Bulldogs.”
Just because Bartko is focusing on football improvements doesn’t mean the non-revenue sports will suffer. In fact, the opposite is true.
Women’s soccer and lacrosse are still getting locker room upgrades, along with a new playing surface at their recently opened facility east of the stadium. The Warmerdam Field track needs resurfacing, as do the Wathen Center tennis courts.
Bartko must raise $1.2 million to cover full cost-of-attendance stipends for all Bulldogs student-athletes, plus another $500,000 for next year’s training table. And that doesn’t include the money needed to bring back wrestling, something that his boss, President Joseph Castro, has promised to do.
More than anything, there has been a simple acknowledgment that football’s profitability raises the tide for everything else.
“I bet you (at) Oregon, 70% of the revenue is from football and their budget,” Bartko said in a lengthy Q&A. “But every other program knows that the more success football has, the better their budget is going to be.”
This isn’t only true at Oregon. It also applies to Fresno State’s biggest conference rivals. Boise State has made dramatic improvements to its stadium and is paying for them through bonds and a lucrative naming-rights deal. Colorado State recently asked the state legislature to borrow $220 million in bonds for construction of an on-campus stadium. Even Nevada is going full steam ahead with an $11.5 million facelift.
It’s too early in the process to say what Fresno State’s stadium plans will look like or how Bartko intends to pay for them. Right now, after one month, his gumption is enough.