Report ponders future of University of Alaska athletics

A conceptual image of the Alaska Airlines Center. Image from Alaska Airlines.
A conceptual image of the Alaska Airlines Center. Image from Alaska Airlines.

The future of athletics for the University system is at financial risk.

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The programs get more than half their current budget from state funds and the UA system plans to dramatically reduce that in the next few years.

A new report takes a look at steps the athletic departments can take to save money.

The goal of the report is straightforward.

“Look at ways to reduce expenses, reduce costs,” University of Alaska Anchorage athletic director Keith Hackett said. He’s a member of the committee that produced the report. “And how it would look with reductions in general fund dollars.”

This year, UAA gets $5.3 million from the general fund for athletics – more than half the department’s annual budget and Hackett’s group is looking to cut that in half by 2020 and eliminate it by 2025.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is faces a similar challenge.

The committee came up with three potential options that could, theoretically, meet that goal.

“The most drastic one was to eliminate sports at one or both campuses. And that would a very, very difficult thing,” Hackett said.

If that option were chosen, he says it would make the University of Alaska the only state university in the country without intercollegiate athletics on at least one campus.

Option 2 is a consortium model where student athletes could attend classes at one campus, and compete on the other’s athletic teams.

It’s not unheard of in the NCAA, but Hackett says the distance between UAA and UAF would make it a unique, and difficult, option.

“There’s a lot of things that are different from the typical consortium, the NCAA has, but I think it’s an option that we should consider,” Hackett said. “It would potentially keep athletics at both campuses, and it would certainly be better than the elimination option.”

The third option would be to reduce one, or both, UAA and UAF to sports in the Division 2 Great Northwest Athletic Conference known as GNAC.

“We’re Division 2 institutions at the core of our athletic programs,” Hackett said. “So I think that’s why that option came up, and we’ve had a very successful run in the GNAC; we won 7 of the 9 conference championships that we competed in last year.”

“And the GNAC is a great league, it’s a great Division 2 conference that both of us are partners in.”

That option, however, would mean the non-GNAC sports – like hockey, gymnastics, skiing, among others – would be dropped entirely.

Sparky Anderson is the head coach of UAA’s ski program – which would be affected by any of the options. He hopes the Board of Regents goes back to the drawing board, and says the program brings much more to the table than just skiing:

“We’re out there promoting the university; we’re creating opportunities for kids; we’re recruiting top minds to the state who stay, who graduate who excel in the community and add to the overall quality of life in Alaska,” Anderson said.

Each year, UAA’s ski team provides more than 250 hours of community service. And Anderson says the team is an integral part of the Anchorage community and beyond.

“We’re out there with the high school teams; we’re out there with the junior teams; we’re in the schools; we are working with Special Olympics; we’re out there in the community and it’s really rewarding for our kids to be visible for everybody, for the entire community,” Anderson said.

Anderson hopes the community will come out in force and weigh in on the options presented in the report.

“I think that if we get enough people to turn the tide of opinion so that the regents and the president understand we are already doing what they seek to do and we are promoting the educational mission of the university, maybe we can have them go back to the drawing boards and understand how important the ski team is to their educational mission here at the University of Alaska statewide,” Anderson said.

A final decision may be different than any of the current ideas, but Director Hackett says one thing is certain – change is coming:

“I have spoken to our coaches and staff about that, and right today, there’s no decisions that have been made and everything is still an option,” Hackett said.

Forums are scheduled on each of the main campuses to discuss and take comment on the athletics report, as part of the university’s quest to reduce costs.

The report is expected to be on the agenda at the upcoming Board of Regents meeting in September.

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Josh is the Statewide Morning News Reporter/Producer for Alaska Public Media | jedge (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8455 | About Josh

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