Belt-Tightening Forces Scrutiny of UNO Sports
January 24, 2009
By Brett Martel - Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A sea of empty blue seats and the echoing University of New Orleans fight song greet the Privateers men's basketball team when they emerge from the tunnel of the newly refurbished, nearly 9,000-seat Lakefront Arena.
The scene inside the hulking stadium, reopened for basketball this season for the first time since Hurricane Katrina, pretty much captures the plight of Division I sports at UNO.
On one hand, there is the resilience of an institution that has come back from an epic disaster, providing hope to the still-reeling residential neighborhoods that surround it.
At the same time, sparsely attended games, a sagging economy and dropping oil prices have combined to create a cloud of uncertainty over whether all the hard work to keep teams playing and gradually restore — even improve — the premier sports venues on campus will yield long-lasting rewards.
"We're not throwing in the towel by any means. We're going to be fine. It's just that every entity in the state is going through the same thing right now," UNO athletic director Jim Miller said. "We've got a lot going for us, but we're just in a situation where we need more support to continue to build it back."
Across the country, the economic downturn is beginning to take a toll on college athletics. Only this past week, The Associated Press learned that Stanford's athletic department was projecting $5 million in losses during the next three years and was looking at cost-cutting measures, including the possibility of laying off staff and eliminating some teams.
Since much of Louisiana's budget depends on the health of the its coastal oil industry, there was hope in mid-2008 that record-high oil prices would actually mitigate the need for painful austerity measures at state institutions. But when prices dropped sharply over the past few months, Gov. Bobby Jindal warned of substantial belt-tightening.
Late last year, the president of the Louisiana State University system asked UNO chancellor Tim Ryan to outline up to $5.3 million in cuts to UNO's overall budget. Ryan responded in a memo last month that he would consider cutbacks in virtually every department, including athletics.
"It's painful, and at this point we hope we can figure out a way not to have any cuts, to do our best to convince the state Legislature and our supporters that cutting higher education is not a good idea, that it's an investment in the future," said Ryan, an avid sports fan who regularly attends UNO games.
At UNO, however, the sports department needs not only to be spared cuts, but must grow to retain Division I status.
The university currently is in the fourth year of a five-year waiver from the NCAA which allows it to retain Division I status without having the mandated minimum 14 teams. UNO currently has nine teams: men's and women's basketball; men's and women's swimming and diving; men's and women's tennis; baseball; men's golf; and women's volleyball. There are plans to add women's golf, women's softball, women's soccer and men's and women's cross-country. That would bring the number of teams to 15, the minimum required for continued membership in the Sun Belt Conference. Unless their waiver is extended, the new teams would have to be in place by the 2010-11 academic year.
Basketball coach Joe Pasternack, a New Orleans native who attended packed UNO games back when former coach Tim Floyd led the Privateers to the NCAA tournament in the early 1990s, worried that even whispers of cuts to athletics would harm recruiting.
"The economy is horrible and all over America, people are coming up with rash solutions, so to me, you've got to take them with a grain of salt," said Pasternack, a former Cal-Berkeley assistant who is in his second season as Privateers head coach. "UNO's not going anywhere and the athletic department is not going anywhere."
Pasternack unabashedly calls coaching the Privateers a "dream job." But for the lack of fans, it's easy to see why. With help from federal disaster aid, UNO poured $26 million into the gutting and renovating Lakefront Arena. Additionally, a pair of local alumni donated $1 million for plush locker rooms with flat-screen TVs and an adjoining theater where coaches and players can review game video in large reclining seats. The arena complex also includes refurbished practice courts.
"We've got state-of-the-art equipment now, so it's pretty exciting," Pasternack said. "To me, it's very special to be able to come back home to New Orleans and be able to coach the hometown team — and it's special for young men from here to be able to wear 'New Orleans' on the front of their jerseys."
UNO sits on relatively high ground along a levee lining the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Unlike surrounding, lower-lying neighborhoods, it was spared significant flooding during Katrina. The campus suffered widespread wind damage, though, including to the arena, where the exterior facade and roof were ripped open, letting rain pour in.
Campus was closed for one semester. The men's and women's basketball teams spent the past few seasons playing home games in an older gym with rollout bleachers like those found in high schools. The baseball field, next to Lakefront Arena, also was damaged and wasn't playable until late in the 2006 season. But the baseball team held together and remained strong, earning berths to the NCAA tournament the past two seasons.
Yet winning games has been easier than bringing back fans.
UNO caters mostly to commuting students and the Privateers haven't had a tradition of packing sporting events in the first place. Attendance spiked when they won, but as Ryan noted, many students live in other parts of town and work when they're not in class.
"It's not like they're sitting around campus at night saying, 'Let's go to a basketball game,'" Ryan said.
That problem worsened after Katrina's flooding hit neighborhoods surrounding UNO much harder than downtown and the French Quarter. The result was the displacement of numerous off-campus students and casual fans who lived nearby. Attendance for men's basketball this season has been a little below 1,000 per game, Miller, the athletic director, said.
Looking around at all the empty seats during a recent game, Miller added, "Is this now our fan base from the casual fan? I don't know, but that's a concern."
More than three years after the storm struck, a few small triumphs of recovery are scattered along multilane Elysian Fields Avenue, the main route to the university from Interstate 10.
Some banks, gas stations, drug stores, cafes, even a daiquiri shop, have reopened, yet numerous houses in the area remain gutted, their yards overgrown, with no sign of work going on.
"How can we be held to the same standard as institutions that have not taken the hits that we've taken with Hurricane Katrina?" Miller said, adding that his own house was flooded by 9 feet of water.
Miller also said his department never viewed filling the arena as its raison d'etre. Rather, sports are for students who choose to participate, a way to tie alumni together and an important promotional tool.
Miller argues that his athletic budget of about $4.5 million pays for itself when one adds up space in newspapers or air time on local broadcasts dedicated to coverage of UNO teams.
"We would like to have 7,000 people in here every night, but ... we're in a small market, we have major league competition with the Saints and Hornets," Miller said. "The fact that we can get exposure for the university — that is really the most valuable thing we have going for us, and at some point, when you lay the foundation like that, and you start to win, people show up."
Ryan agrees, and hopes state lawmakers and LSU system officials will, too, if in fact projected budget constraints turn out as bad as some fear.