Don’t Expect UH Sports Profitability

Some sports fans were alarmed last week when University of Hawaii at Manoa chancellor Tom Apple told a reporter from Ka Leo, the student newspaper, that if UH athletics aren’t at the break-even point in three years, it might be time to drop participation at the FBS/Division I level.

This is the same Tom Apple who talked dreamily about UH striving for Pac-12 membership when he arrived last year. It was probably an attempt to rally the fan base, albeit a misguided one.

It’s not unreasonable to have the discussion about where UH sports best fits in the future, though fans who have suffered through rough times with their beloved Rainbow/Warrior teams don’t like to be chastened – or worse, threatened.

If there is a change in UH’s athletic status in the future, it will be made by the various constituencies that make up the UH community, from fans to regents to politicians.

But here is a news flash: UH will never break even – it is not even a reasonable goal. The story reported by USA Today last week told a compelling tale. Only 23 public universities out of 220 broke even or better in 2011-12. All of them belong to BCS conferences with huge television revenues. Even membership in those conferences was no guarantee of financial success. In one year, Rutgers (Big East) lost $28 million, Oregon State (Pac-12) was down $18.7 million, and Maryland (ACC) had $17.2 million in red ink. In one year!

By comparison, UH is behind some $11 million over the last six years total. How can that happen? By being in a smaller conference with tiny television revenue; being forced to pay not only its own travel but that of its conference opponents; having the poorest stadium deal in the nation (one that, in my opinion, borders on the criminal); receiving no money from merchandising, parking or concessions; and receiving only paltry sums as subsidies.

Instead of throwing barbs at UH athletic administrators, we should throw them a parade.

You don’t hear campus administrators at Virginia (-$13.1 million in 2011-12) or Arizona State (-$10.3 million in 2011-12) talking about dropping down a level or eliminating sports altogether. Their presidents and chancellors know that athletics bind communities and alumni to their universities. They buck up and solider on.

It is reasonable to expect that our UH athletic administrators do everything they can to contain expenses, to maximize revenues and to be careful stewards of university resources. Thus far, the Wonder Blunder excepted, they have done that. And we in the community will have to do our part.

But I for one do not want our football team playing New Mexico Highlands and Southern Utah, or our basketball teams squaring off against LaVerne and Chapman College. And it doesn’t have to come to that. When I reminded a pessimist on the radio the other day that five Januarys ago Hawaii played in the Sugar Bowl, he said that would never happen again and that UH played over its head.

As one coach long ago told me, you never play over your head, you just get a glimpse of what your potential really is.