Robbing Peter and Paul to Pay Mary
by Jim Alderson, 4/10/02

The Virginia Tech Athletic Director generates strong feelings, pro and con, among many Hokie fans. Whatever their feelings, however, most Tech fans agreed that the VT Athletic Department is run in a fiscally-responsible manner, especially under the present circumstances that find Tech to be the only member of a BCS conference not receiving revenue sharing from menís basketball. That does not appear to be the case, however, in stories concerning negotiations for a substantial raise for VT women's basketball coach Bonnie Henrickson.

It should be stated up front that I am not the biggest fan of womenís basketball (although, after watching some of the womenís Final Four, I would be an avid viewer if Playboy were to present a ĎGirls of the Coaching Boxí pictorial that prominently featured the Oklahoma coach). Different people like different sports. I once discovered that there are quite a few Hokies who donít particularly care for NASCAR, and I harbor no ill will toward them, with one exception. To each his or her own.

I am a fan, however, of the increasing amounts of money I chip in to the Virginia Tech Athletic Department being spent responsibly, and Iím not sure giving Bonnie a huge raise would constitute that. Tech has made a strong commitment to womenís basketball, and has precious little in the pocketbook to show for it. Tech is hardly alone in that regard, as virtually no womenís programs break even or make money.

Ohio State, the school which recently expressed interest in Bonnie, has an athletic budget roughly three times the size of Techís, giving the Buckeyes the financial clout to hire whom they want and pay them whatever they demand, regardless of the cost, a situation in which Virginia Tech does not find itself. Tennessee, a program with much more fan interest in womenís basketball than Tech can command, one that routinely sells out an arena twice the size of Cassell, has trouble covering their expenses. Even the gold standard of womenís basketball, Connecticut, where interest in womenís basketball comes close to constituting a state religion, the program requires subsidies from the less-successful menís team. When high-powered teams like those canít make money, there is little chance Tech will, either.

It may be a sad fact, but a fact nonetheless, that interest in womenís basketball, while growing, is still years and perhaps decades away from positively impacting an athletic departmentís bottom line. ESPN televises the womenís NCAA tournament as a favor for programming and pays practically nothing for it, mirroring its miniscule ratings. While the womenís Final Four sold out the Alamo Dome, almost covering the expense of bringing the teams there, attendance was abysmal at a regional held in basketball-crazed North Carolina.

North Carolina is a state where obtaining season tickets to Cameron Indoor Stadium for Coach Kís team involves human sacrifice, whereas attending all home games for Coach Gís football team means simply joining the couple of hundred others walking in the door. At NC State there is a waiting list of fans to contribute to the millions being raised from luxury boxes of Herb Sendekís Wolfpack squad at the same ESA where the womenís tournament was ignored, even as State womenís coach Kay Yow, the shrillest of advocates for the womenís game, stops just short of demanding that government require people to attend her games at the point of a gun.

At UNC, members of Sylvia Hatchellís womenís team were reduced to writing letters to area papers begging fans to come to watch their strong squad, requests unheeded even as Tar Heel fans continued packing the Dean Dome to watch Matt Dohertyís men's crew go down the tubes. Womenís basketball is a tough sell, and strong financial support for the sport remains an athletic indulgence.

Schools generally field two programs that have the potential to make money, football and menís basketball. At Tech, that number is one, Frank Beamerís football team. Frank has not been shy in dallying with other schools to ensure his program is funded at a level sufficient to achieve the results most of us desire. It is one thing for Frank Beamer to leverage other job offers into increased football spending, but something altogether different for Bonnie Henrickson to attempt the same thing, because Coach Beamerís team is paying most of the athletic bills.

Tech does not possess the athletic resources of an Ohio State, Florida or Tennessee, or even that of NC State or North Carolina, where menís basketball teams playing in huge arenas generate enough money to justify large-scale spending on womenís basketball, or at Maryland, where Gary Williams and the new Comcast Center will be paying the $275,000 salary of new women's head coach Brenda Oldfield. Scanty men's basketball attendance (a record low 3,500 fans per game this past season) at Cassell does not bring in that kind of coin.

Menís basketball continues to appear to be the odd sport out at Tech. Funded at a subsistence level and headed by Ricky Stokes, someone whose primary qualification was a willingness to work cheap (although Ďcheapí is a relative term, as I wouldnít mind taking a shot at making ends meet on an annual income of $130k). The menís program continues to limp along.

To be sure, Tech menís basketball suffers under the onerous Big East entry fee, a regressive tax designed to transfer income from the Tech football team to the skimpy budgets of the conferenceís basketball schools, as well as ensure that Tech endures some serious losing. The Hokies are paying $2.5 million to the league over the first ten years of Big East membership, and they won't share revenue for men's basketball, over $1 million a year, for the first five years (two years of which have been completed -- click here for full details on Tech's Big East entry terms).

The cover charge will eventually be paid, however, and menís basketball will have the potential to become a second profit center for Tech athletics, joining football in generating cash to provide increased opportunities for women athletes at Tech. The groundwork for Tech's football success was laid through decisions made in the late Eighties and early Nineties, and this would be an excellent opportunity to do the same in menís basketball. The perilous job status of Ricky Stokes, who will be in year four of a five-year contract next season, will certainly impact his recruiting next year, but equally damaging will be the perception that menís basketball has been written off by the Tech administration.

In a perfect world, the money would exist to compensate all coaches at Tech with a salary in the top 15-20 in the country. Tech athletics doesn't yet operate in that environment, however, and cannot meet calls of ďthe money can be foundĒ by hunting for it on the Drill Field or by utilizing a printing press in a steam tunnel. A pay increase for any coach involves administrative choices, and in my opinion, a choice devoting scarce resources to a financially non-productive one (women's basketball) until another (men's basketball) receives a share of those same resources adequate to give him a fighting chance of contributing to the bottom line is not the hallmark of a well-managed organization.

The Title IX club held over the heads of universities by the governmental Big Sister has resulted in a sharp curtailment in menís sports around the country. At Tech, one of those should not continue to be menís basketball.

Jim Alderson, who first made his mark with his biting political commentary on the A-Line email newsletter, also brings a unique, sarcastic, and well-informed perspective on college sports, particularly (1) Virginia Tech sports and (2) ACC sports.  While Hokie fans currently have very little use for subject number 2, Alderson is an entertaining and informative columnist on subject number 1.  For even more fun, visit Jim's A-Line home page.


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