State Cuts Will Likely Impact Summit League Membership

The stress on public state university budgets is probably going to directly impact Summit League membership.

The University of North Dakota, yes that North Dakota, from the Big Sky, has to make up a $1.8 million dollar annual shortfall in their athletic department. One of the options on the table is leaving the Big Sky to join the Summit League. UND President, Mark Kennedy, recently moved the department’s chief financial officer out of the athletic director’s control and under the university’s finance department, while forming a committee to examine “a number of factors, including the sports we participate in, conference participation, the number of athletes that we serve and the cost of the programs.

The Summit League has already scheduled a visit to the UND campus November 1st-2nd, which can be reasonably construed as “serious interest” by both parties.

If (when) they move to the Summit League, they will be required to sponsor a minimum of seven sports: men’s and women’s basketball plus five additional core sports that North Dakota can choose. UND is expected to drop a minimum of 2 programs. But they already sponsor 8 women and 8 men’s teams so this won’t be an issue.

The Summit League’s University of Western Illinois is at the mercy of a shaky Illinois state budget and the must cut a whopping $20 million over the next two years. Sports could and probably will be the first to go and the Summit League commissioner Tom Douple has been keeping a close eye on the future of the Leatherneck program. The timing could be ideal to add the Fighting Hawks to the conference.

According to Wane.com,  a report projects that Indiana-Purdue University Fort Wayne could also see a $2 million to $3 million revenue shortfall next year on its $110 million operating budget. That follows a January recommendation that the joint campus be split into separate schools. This shortfall comes as enrollment has declined 11 percent since 2011 to just 12,719 students last fall. Aside from academic restructuring, a report calls for reducing administrative positions from the current 353 and taking a hard look at the athletic department’s $8 million budget to determine “the campus community’s acceptable level of investment in athletics.”

A Summit League study conducted by USA Today discussed in the Argus Leader concluded:Compared to much of the rest of the Summit League, South Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota are doing fine, and more important, probably have more reason to be optimistic about future growth. They are the flagship universities of their state – with large fan bases, community and sponsorship support and regular coverage from local media. Other than North Dakota State University, the rest of the Summit League struggles to meet those standards…”.

“Some (other)programs (in the Summit) don’t have a base,” USD athletic director David Herbster says. “They’re in a metro area (only Denver & Indianapolis and to a lesser degree Omaha in the shadows of University of Nebraska) where they’re overshadowed by bigger programs and media markets, and that’s a struggle. You can become kind of an afterthought.”

While the addition of UND to the Summit League is likely to ignite regional rivalries in the Dakotas, the impact on Denver locally is less clear. DU may benefit by attendance from local UND alums but Denver area fans and the current student body are unlikely to dramatically increase attendance when UND comes to town, especially for non-revenue sports, at least in the short term.

Over the long term, the hockey-based rivalry between Denver and North Dakota might eventually grow into a multi-sport rivalry, which could and probably would drive attendance numbers up. The bottom line is, the effect of a potential move by North Dakota to the Summit League is unclear at the moment and probably won’t affect Denver’s desire to join the West Coast Conference should a spot open up.