Fresno State raised more than $4 million toward its athletic scholarships in 2018, more than it had in any of the past 10 years.
But university and athletic department officials said donations must double this year to stabilize the Bulldog Foundation, which raises those scholarship dollars and is reaching a critical point with its net financial position in a steady decline.
Due to increased costs stemming from a cost attendance stipend for student-athletes and the addition of wrestling and women’s water polo programs, the net position of the BDF dropped to $13.9 million from $17.8 million over a three-year period, and it is expected to remain around that level or be down again slightly in 2018.
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The cost of scholarships meanwhile continue to rise; the athletic department has budgeted $8.1 million in 2019, an increase from $5.6 million in 2015.
Unchecked, they are on a collision course.
So how much trouble is Fresno State in?
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it – it’s a challenge,” said athletics director Terry Tumey, who inherited a department with severe financial challenges and since his hire has focused fundraising efforts on the fund and its commitment to scholarships.
“We’re making some strides incrementally, but it takes time to see the fruit that you’re going to bear for this department. But we do have a supportive administration, we have a supportive community and therefore we feel there’s hope in what we’re doing.”
Fresno State with the addition of wrestling and women’s water polo is now funding 21 sports programs – eight men’s and 13 women’s. There are 388 student-athletes on campus who receive aid, with 143 on full scholarship.
BDF net position
An in-state scholarship runs about $23,345 per year including tuition, room and board and textbooks, out-of-state about $35,225.
That does not include the cost of attendance stipend, which schools in the Mountain West Conference have tried to tackle in different ways.
Colorado State received a hefty buyout from Florida when hiring football coach Jim McElwain in 2015, payable over six years. When cost of attendance was approved by the NCAA, Joe Parker, the Rams’ athletics director, told the Fort Collins Coloradoan that buyout was expected to cover cost of attendance for three to five years.
Nevada was to fund cost of attendance through university support and an increase in season ticket prices for football and men’s basketball.
Boise State planned to use revenue from its naming rights agreement for Albertsons Stadium, its multimedia rights agreement with Learfield and through increased fundraising.
Fresno State, then under former athletics director Jim Bartko, was to raise the additional money, which was expected to run as much as $1.2 million a year.
Cost of attendance instead became a drain on the BDF.
“When you put together the cost of attendance rising, the number of student-athletes that we have in our portfolio and the fact that our philanthropic activities have not been as concentrated as they are now, we have had to take from what I consider our corpus in order to meet the demands of scholarship dollars,” Tumey said. “That’s why you’re seeing the position change.”
Solutions, and the non-starters …
A simple solution is to reduce the number of sports programs on campus and therefore the number of scholarships – Fresno State with its 21 programs has more than all but one school in the Mountain West Conference; Air Force has 27.
San Diego State and UNLV, with larger athletics budgets than Fresno State, have 17 and 16 sports programs. New Mexico had 20, but last July announced it was dropping four programs (men’s soccer, men’s and women’s skiing and women’s beach volleyball) to cut costs and address Title IX concerns in its athletics department.
At Fresno State, cutting programs is a non-starter for university president Joseph Castro and Tumey, even though university support of athletics has skyrocketed the past few years.
The university kicked in an additional $1.6 million in support to athletics this year so that Tumey could start with a balanced budget, bringing the total for 2018-19 to $19.1 million; in 2013-14, the year Castro was appointed, it was $9.6 million.
That $1.6 million was on top of covering a $2 million budget shortfall from 2017-18.
The Bulldogs’ coaches, while working tight budgets, also have been asked to recruit more in California to cut down on out-of-state tuition costs.
“We want to become more California-centric in recruiting,” Tumey said. “Not only is it serving the citizens we have in California and this Valley, if you look at it from a cost perspective, it is a better investment because we don’t have to pay out-of-state tuition. I think there will be a greater emphasis on looking at the great young people we have here in California in all sports, not just a couple, in all sports.”
That is not a hardship for some of the Bulldogs’ coaches. California is flush with talent in some sports – baseball coach Mike Batesole has two out-of-state players on his roster of 37, softball coach Linda Garza has three on her roster of 23, women’s soccer has three out-of-state players out of 25, wrestling has four out of 25.
In men’s basketball, though, six of 13 players are from out of state.
In women’s basketball, 11 of 12 scholarship players are from out of state.
Women’s golf and tennis also have a high percentage of student-athletes from outside California.
But savings there are minimal, and there is no one answer to funding the Bulldogs’ scholarships or a very lean athletics department budget.
“It’s going to be a combination of everything,” Tumey said. “There are definitely more discussions on, ‘How can we do a better job in raising money? How can we do a better job with our sports and trying to do some things? Then of course there’s always trying to strike some better deals with the revenue streams that we have …
“There’s not one bullet that will solve our problem. It’s not like you can go and get a shot and you’re going to cure your ails. You have to do a lot of things to meet the demand and it’s going to take a lot of hard work and time.”
Into a fertile Valley …
Tumey and Tim Collins, hired in September as senior associate athletics director for development, each said he is optimistic the Bulldog Foundation can meet demand into the future for one very good reason: the Valley.
Fresno State has its primary revenue driver at a high point, with coach Jeff Tedford leading the Bulldogs’ football program to a 22-6 record, one Mountain West championship and two bowl game victories in two seasons. Coach Justin Hutson has the men’s basketball program off to a 16-6 start in his first season, third place in the conference, and playing an up-tempo style that has added some spark back into the Save Mart Center after years of declining attendance.
Interest is there, and far from fully tapped.
“To raise $4 million again is a testament to the Red Wave – we have the most passionate and connected fan base in the Mountain West Conference,” Collins said.
“However, there’s a lot more work to be done. Our goal is to pay the scholarship bill on behalf of Fresno State athletics and it’s going to take everyone’s effort. It’s going to take small businesses, large businesses, individuals. It’s going to take new members and it starts at 100 bucks – $8.34 a month, the cost of two lattes a month. That’s where we have to get people started.”
The Bulldog Foundation, which receives most of its donations through football season ticket sales, for years has had a donor base that hovered around 2,500. The money it brings in is in the top half of the Mountain West, but its donor base at is toward the bottom of the conference, according to numbers compiled by the athletic department.
Collins when at Wyoming worked with a base twice that size.
But Fresno State is surrounded from Bakersfield to Sacramento by a population of roughly 6.5 million and its social media presence proves interest in its athletics programs is there.
The Bulldogs’ general athletics Twitter account has 83,300 followers, second-most of any school in the Mountain West.
The football account has 57,000 followers, again, second in the conference.
The potential is there, if it can expand that donor base through season ticket sales and a greater emphasis on philanthropic donations.
It has to, this year. It is not a bill that it can walk away from.
“Let’s just be honest, it’s a heavy tug,” Tumey said. “We’ve made some strides in the fact that we had a little bit higher ticket revenue (in 2018), but it’s going to take us a little time to where we can meet that demand, which is why so many factors are looked at and evaluated for us.
“I’m not saying it’s a challenge that we can’t meet or a challenge that we as a community can’t address. But it’s a challenge that we’re looking at to try to shore up moving forward. Our fundraising efforts have been solely on the scholarship component, because it’s not just the scholarships, it’s the move to scholarships as well as cost of attendance. That’s where the challenge is.”