Costly WAC membership puts a strain on UMKC’s budget

As budget cuts continue to plague UMKC, scrutiny is intensifying on the athletic program’s costly participation in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC).

UMKC joined the WAC after leaving the Summit League in 2013. As a mid-level, Division I conference with an automatic NCAA postseason berth, the university hoped to capitalize on the financial success and exposure the WAC could provide.

UMKC has had some success in the conference (winning five team championships in the 2016-2017 season, for example), but its big-ticket sports program, men’s basketball, has struggled. While a trip to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament would be a definite revenue boost for the university, the Roos have finished with just one winning season since joining the WAC, finishing 18-17 last year.

KCUR reports that, according to NCAA records filed with the University of Missouri system, the UMKC athletic department’s total operating expenses for the 2016-2017 season were $15 million, exceeding its total revenues of $14.8 million. UMKC cut the budget of the department by $1.3 million this year due to the overall budget cuts UM schools are facing.

“Budget cuts to higher education are affecting universities all across the nation,” said former Sports Information Director Shelby Hild. “Fundraising and scheduling competition more regionally are two of many examples of things that can be done to help resolve issues going on.” Hild vacated the position midway through the men’s basketball season, leaving with the athletic department with no full-time director.

So far, the move to Division I has done little to boost the popularity of UMKC sports. The men’s basketball team plays at the 10,000-seat Municipal Auditorium, but averages about 1,500 fans per game. Unlike in the mid-2000s, the Roos now have no band or cheerleaders.

The WAC conference includes teams from seven states.

Compounding the department’s financial struggles are the heavy travel demands of the conference. The WAC is made up of an assortment of teams spread out across the western half of the country, leaving UMKC with few regional opponents. The closest conference team is Chicago University, over 500 miles away, and the Roos must travel to cities like Bakersfield, California and Seattle, Washington, to play opponents.

NCAA records further reveal how much UMKC must spend on travel. The men’s basketball team spent over $415,000 on flights, ground transportation, meals and lodging for the 2016-2017 season alone. This equates to about $30,000 a trip for the men’s team.

The amount of travel the WAC requires is already leading some of its teams to take action. CSU-Bakersfield announced in November it’s leaving for the Big West, a much more geographically unified conference.

“I think it’s a burden off the university in a sense, because now the travel costs won’t be as much as it’s been in this league,” Bakersfield’s men’s basketball coach Rod Barnes told KCUR when asked about the decision to leave the WAC.

More regional opponents, as well as a move to Division II athletics, would undoubtedly help alleviate financial stress. The median expenses for institutions without a football program supporting Division II athletics in 2011-2012 were $4 million. A Division III program would be even more affordable, with a median cost of $2 million without football sponsorship.

“UMKC, and the UM system, are currently engaged in a very tough budgetary review,” said UMKC’s Director of Media Relations John Martellaro. “The athletics budget cannot be reviewed in isolation, but must be—and will be—considered within the context of that ongoing review.”

UMKC joined the WAC with the clear goals of increasing its athletics program’s exposure and revenue. Five years later, however, minimal popularity and budget cuts are bringing UMKC’s membership into question.

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