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Leaving Division I college sports rejected at Canisius, St. Bonaventure

Both Canisius College and St. Bonaventure University closely studied their athletic programs in recent years and looked at whether moving out of Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association would make sense.

Leaders at both colleges came away with the same opinion: Stay the course.

Running a quality Division III athletics program wouldn’t save St. Bonaventure a significant amount of money, said Tim Kenney, the university’s athletics director.

“If you look at our budgets outside of basketball, they wouldn’t change that much,” Kenney said.

Canisius’ analysis showed that moving to Division III would produce what Canisius President John J. Hurley termed “illusory” savings.

Niagara University has not considered a move to Division III, said the Rev. James J. Maher, its president.

The big worry for many college administrators is how such a dramatic move would affect relationships with alumni.

[Related: Area colleges boost spending on sports teams to lure students]

St. Bonaventure has been able to fund increases in the basketball budget in recent years through external sources, such as corporate sponsorships and private giving, which it would not be able to do if the men’s team competed at the Division III level, Kenney said.

So while St. Bonaventure’s athletics budget has grown, the actual costs to the institution – not including sports scholarships – have gone down in recent years. Kenney pegged those costs last year at about $300,000, after factoring the amount of tuition and fees generated from student athletes on campus, as well as ticket sales, conference revenues, sponsorships, gifts and other revenue.

“If you start to peel back the onion, it’s not as much as you think it is,” Kenney said.

The benefits of the athletics program for students and for the university “far outweighed” the tab, he added.

“When you look at the ancillaries, the public relations from the basketball team, people see it,” Kenney said. “It’s hard to quantify, but it’s out there.”

Kenney recalled his own experience in 1991 as a high school swimmer on Long Island. Kenney didn’t know anything about Richmond University. But after the Spiders’ shocking upset of national powerhouse Syracuse University in the first round of the March Madness basketball tournament, Kenney dialed Richmond’s swimming coach asking for a spot on the swim team.

Kenney ultimately ended up at the University at Buffalo, where he was an All-American swimmer, but he used the anecdote to explain how the NCAA’s college basketball tournament each spring can heighten the profile of a school that’s little-known beyond its regional geography.

St. Bonaventure came close this past March to making the 64-team tournament for the first time since 2012, and the run-up alone generated a lot of interest in the university, Kenney said.

“The social media started to go through the roof for us,” he said.

[Related: Spiraling student fees help colleges chase athletic glory, critics say]

In 2015, The Drake Group, a national organization of faculty and others that works to defend academic integrity in collegiate sports, called for a cap on the amount of fees institutions can charge students for their intercollegiate athletics programs.

“Budget cuts are occuring on campuses throughout the United States despite the rising costs associated with attending college, but athletic budgets are increasing in an ‘arms race’ that many institutions cannot win and in which they should not be competing,” the Drake Group wrote in its position statement on student fees and athletic spending.

Colleges outside of the wealthiest five athletic conferences, including all four area Division I programs, miss a larger point when they say they wouldn’t save money by dropping to Division II or III, said B. David Ridpath, associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University.

“Long term, why it would be a huge financial gain is that you’re not in the arms race anymore,” Ridpath said.

How much longer can schools like St. Bonaventure and Canisius afford to stay in the game?

It’s a fair question, Hurley and Kenney acknowledged.

St. Bonaventure is “only going to get so much external money in the end” to help fund athletics, Kenney said.

Every mid-major conference school in the country shares the concern about whether they can keep pace with the wealthiest teams, Hurley said. “I think there’s a lot of soul searching going on right now.”

Colleges are reluctant to give up, though.

“Most are going to stay in the game,” said Ridpath, “as long as they can.”


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