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Addition Of Football Buoys ODU's Athletic Program

Courtesy: ODU Athletics
         
Release: October 08, 2008
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Oct. 8, 2008

Adding football at Old Dominion University is shaping up as the culmination of an era of explosive growth in the school's athletics program.

There's hardly a corner of the campus that isn't affected as ODU moves to increase its athletic profile. Associate athletic director Debbie White, who has worked for the school since 1979, can remember when ODU's major component was a single field house - one that recently was bulldozed.

"The other night when the football team was scrimmaging, I took a moment and took a panoramic view of the campus," White said. "I got goose bumps. None of this was here. Now it goes on and on and on."

Consider these facts:

- ODU almost doubled its operating budget for athletics between 2004 and 2009, to more than $20 million.

- During a recent three-year period, the school increased the number of employees on the athletic department payroll by 37 percent, from 83 to 114.

- The $17 million Powhatan Sports Complex, a multi-sport athletics facility at the west end of campus that services football, women's field hockey and women's lacrosse, was built.

- Women's crew has been added. Women's volleyball and softball are being added.

- Multiple construction projects, in addition to Powhatan, were completed. They include the expansion of the soccer complex, an indoor tennis facility, a wrestling training facility and an academic support wing to the Athletics Administration Building.

There also is the ongoing $24.1 million renovation project at Foreman Field, where the football team will play.

With football - a typically revenue-generating sport - positioning itself to be self-sufficient eventually, the athletics department is operating solidly in the black. It is doing so despite expenses growing from about $11.7 million in 2006 to a little more than $20 million projected for 2009. By comparison, James Madison's budget for this year is $22.2 million.

Helping ODU's revenue stream is that all 24 suites - at $20,000 to $25,000 apiece - and 400 premium seats - at $3,500 each - for football are claimed.

"We've sold all the skyboxes and loge seats and have waiting lists," said Mark Benson, assistant vice president of athletic development for ODU's Intercollegiate Foundation, better known as the Big Blue Club. "We have over 11,000 who have put down payments on season tickets. And we still have eight months before the deadline for those orders."

According to Mark Brown, associate athletic director in charge of finance, the football program is not the only force driving the rapidly expanding athletic department.

"Before we added football, we were very cognizant of our responsibility to bring as many sports as we could up to the maximum number of scholarships allowed by the NCAA," Brown said. "Teams are at a competitive disadvantage if you are only funding 70 to 95 percent of the allowable scholarship limit. We didn't want that."

ODU brought eight sports up to the NCAA scholarship limits in the past 10 years, leaving only two sports - men's and women's swimming - less than fully funded. (The NCAA recognizes the sport of sailing but does not allow scholarships to be awarded.)

The budget for ODU's football operations this school year is less than $1 million; men's basketball expenses are set at $2.2 million. Brown expects football to surpass men's basketball in operating expenses by 2010 and ODU's operating budget to continue its climb, albeit not at such a steady rate.

"We've added and are still adding a lot of jobs that are the result of football, but are not directly reporting to football," Brown said. "Academic advisers, NCAA compliance personnel, new trainers. It's sometimes hard to get a good handle on the actual cost of football."

Benson said, despite the recent successes in fundraising, the job is hardly done.

"We seem to have a much-wanted product in football," he said. "Still, knowledge is power and our alumni base and program supporters need to know that our athletics department has growing needs."

The athletics growth began in earnest with the opening of the Constant Center for basketball in 2002.

"We built a basketball building on good faith, hoping people would love it and it would be successful," Benson said. "The success of the Ted has led almost directly to other growth and has shown us what ODU's potential is."

To fund the growth, ODU has passed some of the expense to students through increased student activities fees.

Three years ago, according to ODU, the per-credit-hour student activities fee was $63.53. Of that, $27.81 went to athletics, so students taking 30 credit hours would have contributed about $834 to athletics. This school year, ODU's student activities fees are $84.50 per credit hour, with $43.79 of that going toward athletics, meaning a full-time student is paying about $1,313 in fees targeted for the athletics.

Student Government Association president Michelle Davis said she has heard little negativity about the increases.

"We knew our student activities fees would go up," said Davis, a senior. "It's expected when you add a football team. We aren't concentrating on the budget aspect; we're concentrating on the excitement aspect and we see the ongoing work on the stadium each and every day.

"My sister went to Virginia Tech and I'm very used to Tech football. I'm going to be proud to say my school now has a team."

The fees hike, coupled with the growth in enrollment, has allowed ODU to increase the revenue produced by student fees from $10.1 million to $15.1 million this school year.

ODU's fees going to athletics are generally in line with many of the state universities that play Division I-AA football.

The increases in fees didn't seem to bother senior Cameron King, as long as the student body is treated fairly when it comes to seating at games.

"We are obviously paying a larger sum and that's OK as long as we get a good seat," King said. "Right now, we get the feeling that there's a real improvement in the quality of campus life.

"We're bringing more students on campus through more housing and there's an increased pride in being a part of ODU. The Monarch Maniacs student organization felt it first-hand at student orientation, when the number of students signing up doubled from last year."

The $5 million beyond student fees that is needed to balance this year's budget will come from a variety of sources, including gate receipts, sports camps revenue and the Big Blue Club. That group's annual fund provides about $1.4 million and the Big Blue endowment fund, which has seen a major growth spurt in the past eight years, is adding more to athletics each year.

In 2000, the endowment fund contained about $600,000 and was barely providing $27,000 a year to athletics. Today, with membership in the group growing and their giving increasing as well, the endowment fund is hovering between $21 million and $22 million.

Each year, the Big Blue Club takes a portion of interest earned - approximately 4.5 percent on the dollar - and forwards it to the athletics department. This past year, that meant close to $800,000.

"There are BCS schools that operate their athletics solely" on the yields of their intercollegiate foundation "nest eggs," Benson said. "For a mid-major school like us, we are far ahead of the curve right now. Still, we have a long way to go."

Benson admitted the Big Blue Club's annual giving must increase dramatically with the addition of football.

"Our goal is to raise enough money with our annual giving drive each year to cover our total athletics program scholarship bill," Benson said. "Without football, that would have been about $3.3 million this year, so we were getting close to making that goal.

"With the addition of football and the other sports, the bar was raised to about $5.3 million. The positive in all of this is that the school now has over 100,000 alumni that we can reach out to."

Rich Radford, (757) 446-2463, rich.radford@pilotonline.com

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