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Big 4 athletic directors weigh in: Where do college sports fit in Buffalo?

This is the first of three parts in a series on "The State of College Sports" in Western New York.

Athletic directors at the Big 4 schools face the challenge of figuring out where their athletic programs fit into a crowded sports landscape in Western New York.

How can their schools connect to the sports fans in a major league city dominated by the Buffalo Bills and Sabres? That topic was the starting point of a roundtable discussion that The Buffalo News recently hosted to examine "The State of College Sports" with Athletic Directors Mark Alnutt from the University at Buffalo, Bill Maher from Canisius, Simon Gray from Niagara and Tim Kenney from St. Bonaventure.

The complexities of being an athletic director involve roles in administration, marketing, fundraising accounting and psychology. The athletic directors offered their thoughts on the various elements that face the position, face each athletic department and face each school.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

TBN: Where does each of your school's athletic programs stand, in relation to a market that’s dominated by the Bills and Sabres?

Alnutt: For us, it’s understanding this city and trying to be an unbelievable source of pride. It’s putting together a product on the field that people can be very proud of. That’s what our tasks are, and when you have successful programs like that, you’re able to bring people in. We’re not in competition, from UB’s standpoint, with the Bills or Sabres and don’t expect to be in competition. For us, it’s trying to find that other demographic, that other niche. The family of four, the choices are dinner and a movie or going to a UB contest. What can we do, in terms of marketing and promoting of our programs, to be able to track that demographic? Obviously, the lengths it takes in terms to engage the community to do that.

There’s definitely some relevance, from a collegiate athletics standpoint, with all four of our programs, the varied successes we’ve had, I think people will latch onto it. They don’t look at it as, hey, it’s either a collegiate opportunity or a professional opportunity. I don’t think there’s a choice there. We give an option, which I think is very good for us.

Maher: I think affinity and price point are key for us. The affinity of the local alums. A lot of people in Western New York have gone to one or more of the institutions, so can we capitalize on that? And the price point lends itself to family opportunities. I think we all look to see where we can do that, whether it’s in a group of alums coming back for a game, or family that wants to get together for a weekend and have it a more reasonable price point, I think those are where our niches are, if you’re looking for a niche. It is a crowded market, and it's’ something we have to find new ways and creative ways that consumers will come out and support us.

Gray: Winning is the ultimate marketing plan, and it’s been proven through the success of the four programs in here. When you win, people will come out and support you very well. I also think we have a nice rivalry among the four schools and it goes back a long way. And when we play each other, people will come out. A lot of people care. Those are two things we have going for us, success and people will support us, and certainly, when we come together, there’s a lot of support.

Kenney: The Buffalo market is huge, and obviously, we’re a little bit of an outlier. It’s extremely valuable, and it’s our largest market with alums. But I think it’s a historical perspective, more than anything else, that is woven in the fabric of Western New York. Everywhere you go, they talk about the original Little 3, and now it’s the Big 4, and they ask, “What goes on with the Big 4, is that there?” Being here over four years now, in this position, it's figuring out that there is an appetite. It’s woven within the historical perspective.

From the perspective of St. Bonaventure, our people, they travel to wherever. We know, with (a survey by the athletic department done every summer of ticket purchasers to analyze demographics), that 45% of people who buy tickets or come to games, whether it’s season, individual or whatever, they come from 45-plus minutes away from campus. What does that mean? They’re coming from Buffalo, Rochester, from other areas. They’re not coming from Pennsylvania, they’re coming from the north.

With UB elevating to D-1 and now having the Little 3 being the Big 4, I go off what Mark said, about that pride. The region can have pride in the four schools, as well as the Bills and Sabres. It doesn’t have to be an "either/or." It can be all together. There’s different price points. There’s affordability. There’s a lot of different ways for entertainment.

TBN: Simon brought up a really good point in saying success is a gauge. But what happens when there isn’t success?

Gray: Attendance is a challenge across the country. Whether you’re doing really well or not doing really well. I would say about our region that we have passionate people who support us, through and through. But there are folks, to get the bump in addition to your die-hards, you have to be doing well. One of the things we concentrate on is engagement and access. Having the ability with our fans to engage with student-athletes and coaches, that’s something that, at our level, we can provide that enables people to feel like they’re part of our program, in more than just the wins and the losses.

TBN: Let's look at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference budgets for basketball. Siena’s at $3.5 million, according to federal documents. Siena, Fairfield, Iona, Quinnipiac, all either are at $750,000 or $1 million more than Canisius and Niagara. Is that becoming a concern for you, the arms race, if you will?

Maher: Yes. It’s always a concern when you’re in a competitive environment. There’s really no stronger correlation in college athletics than what you spend and what your winning percentage is. That doesn’t mean there’s not outliers and anomalies. The last three years, we have the most wins in the MAAC, of anything, and that’s overachievement. But yes, it does concern me, because it’s a competitive marketplace. But we have to be fiscally responsible. We have to put together a program that says, what’s best for Canisius College. You always have to get inside the numbers a little bit on those, too. Siena has a significant spend for building rental that we don’t have in our (budget). Fairfield, the same thing. The difference in the cost of scholarships at private institutions, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars at times. Nevertheless, numbers are numbers and it is a little bit of a challenge for us. It doesn’t change the fact that we have to saddle up, go to work and try to win games.

TBN: That said, is there a sense of having to “keep up with the Joneses,” in terms of facilities? Budgets are hard to come by, and there’s a lot of time courting donors for different things. Is there a pressure to keep facilities and impress kids with bells and whistles?

Gray:  We all go to our programs and say, “What do you need to be successful?” What they tell us runs the gamut. Facilities is, inherently, in everybody’s needs, so we prioritize. What do we think is most realistic and will cause the most impact? That’s the first step, is a full breadth of understanding what can most impact the facilities. But I don’t know if “keeping up with the Joneses” is the right term, because we will never be able to match what Alabama does. We strategically say, “This is going to be an impact because our coaches say, ‘Having this is going to get us better recruits or enhance or fan experience, which will then make the environment better.’ ” Videoboards (that were funded by part of a $1 million private donation) are a perfect example. That’s something we did for recruiting but more for fan engagement and how our environment changes around our games, which does tie back to recruiting. The baseball field and the $2 million dollar project was really important for us, just to change the thought process behind baseball. And you have to have people who are passionate about it, and who will step up and help get it done.

Maher: The point is, what fit’s right for you? Facility decisions and anything like that is going be made by an institution. Not necessarily just by athletic director saying, “We’d like to do this.” It starts with a planning process. We’re going through a master planning process, to go through our facilities and say, “What would be appropriate for Canisius?” We’re not trying to be a Mid-American (Conference) school or a state institution. We’re trying to be, what’s the best version of Canisius College in the MAAC that we can have? And I think that drives the decision-making, but facilities do matter and we want them to be as good as we can possibly make them.

The Murchie Family Fieldhouse opened last spring at UB. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

TBN: At UB you just got a step forward with the Murchie Family Fieldhouse, and you’re building new tennis courts. Is there something next?

Alnutt: We’re going through a master planning process and getting this all down and figuring out what the fit is. We’re looking at a new strength and conditioning center, which is going to be very important to us, mainly as it relates to football and some of the Olympic sports that share UB Stadium. Also, our softball field. Ease the pressures with our current facilities and what exist there. Also, it’s who we compete with, understanding what they have, what we aspire to have and what’s realistic. When it comes to being in lockstep with the university, that’s key. Having those conversations with various cabinets.

We’re going through a feasibility study for a new wellness center, which will have a rec center component to it. If we’re able to move to something like that, that’s going to pay dividends for athletics. We’ll push that recreation component out of Alumni Arena, and that gives us the opportunity to repurpose so many different areas. That gives us the opportunity to have a dedicated practice facility for our men’s and women’s basketball programs and our volleyball program.

When recreation takes over those facilities at a given time of night, that provides strain on our program. Or when we have the (UB Distinguished Speakers Series) that comes in (at Alumni Arena), there’s nowhere for our programs to operate. Being in lockstep with leadership and the value that’s going to bring to the university, that’s also going to benefit the university. When there’s talk about, “You need to build a stand-alone basketball facility, it’d be great for you guys!” It will be great, but here’s one thing that’s going be great for our university and great for our students and our student-athletes, the wellness center.

Kenney: Being along the lines of the overall campus is important. We’re all going through master plans and we’re all integral parts of it, for the campus. You can’t operate on an island for those things. As much as your coaches would probably prefer you to do it, it’s bigger-picture stuff. Are they using some of the funds on campus to redo dorms? Yes. That’s going to benefit us. In our case, we’re updating a building for a health professional school (St. Bonaventure) is starting. There’s a lot tied up in that right now.

As much as we want to move things forward, we don’t have a state portion where we can get bonds. It’s a lot harder on the private side. Those priorities have to fit within the school’s priorities. If you hear of problems, it's because athletics is trying to work on their own, and that doesn’t work.

Also, to see the big picture, some of these things that they’re not going to do in athletics, they directly impact student-athletes. Whether it’s an academic-study area on campus that is not in our athletic realm, that’s good for them to get away from it. New health centers, new rec centers. All those things create a positive environment that helps recruiting and helps the success of the kids that you bring in. I think it’s really important.

St. Bonaventure Athletic Director Tim Kenney during a Buffalo News roundtable. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

TBN: As an athletic director, what’s the one thing that keeps you up at night?

Kenney: The role of the athletic director has changed dramatically. You have to be a CPA, a lawyer, a mental health specialist, you have to have knowledge of all (these areas) now. At some institutions, you have more staff that you can bring in that’s specialized, and there’s others where you can’t. The challenge of that, now, comes down to, this enterprise in college athletics, what’s the endgame for what you’re trying to do? Are you trying to win a national championship? No. That’s unrealistic. But the challenge is the expectations that people have, thinking, “You guys should be doing this, you’re on top off this, you should be doing that.” Sometimes, it’s like, well, "Wait a second, these things come out of left field."

Overall, from my perspective, the role of the athletic director has become a lot more challenging because it’s not just anymore, hire coaches. It’s everything we’ve talked about. Where do you get that training? Where do you find people at smaller institutions that can juggle all of this? Like I call it, juggling the chainsaws without cutting their arms off? Because that’s really what it comes down to, is having people in place with that. In this day and age, the overreaction to certain things at times creates even more problems. In the end, you think, “Well, it’s not that bad.” But someone else sees it differently and it’s, “Oh, you’re not taking care of that.” But that perspective to me, as an AD, has become the biggest challenge.

Gray: This probably sounds a little bit corny, but we’re all in this for the same business, and that’s for the student-athletes, and to elevate their experience and to develop them as leaders. We would all agree, as anybody who is in this business for the right reason. However, the two most challenging things, I believe, are budgets and personnel. How are we finding the resources that it’s going to take to make our student-athletes have successful experiences, and do we have the right personnel in place to give them that experience and move us forward?

Maher: Finances. The budget and personnel are two key pieces of that. Who coaches our student-athletes and gives them the experiences that they have on our campus? There’s nothing more important than that, because that’s what they come to our campuses for. That’s why they choose our campuses. So, finding those coaches and then giving those coaches the resources to be successful is the most important thing and the most challenging thing.

Alnutt: Resources, first and foremost. Being able to acquire different revenue sources to, again, fuel this ever-changing and growing and expanding industry. We’re all tasked with having a first-class, individual experience for our student-athletes and now, that experience is not just about graduating at the end of four years. It’s not just about winning conference championships. It’s molding young people. It’s transforming young people. We’re going to start talking about the name-and-likeness piece. That’s going back to resources. How do we do that? The litigation that’s out there now, the NCAA standpoint and all the dollars that’s spent trying to defend that litigation? Concussions. You can go on and on.

Also, we all hate that phone call when there’s some incident with a student-athlete. That could be catastrophic, at times. We’re tasked with, when the parents come in to the office, “We’re going to take care of your son or daughter.” And the next thing, in terms of personalities, make sure we have the right people to do it. But you know what? We don’t have that 24/7 access. When we get those phone calls – and we’ve all been a part of it – it’s the worst phone call you can get, and you wonder, “What should I have done, personally, different?” in terms of surrounding the kid with the proper personnel or resources to, maybe, assure them that this didn’t happen? It’s a lot.

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