LARAMIE, Wyo. — It looked to be a win for University of Wyoming sports when Gov. Matt Mead approved a state budget that included a two-year, $8 million athletic competitiveness match.
And, to be certain, it was. Athletic director Tom Burman said he was "thrilled" by the decision.
But with dwindling energy revenues begetting significant budget cuts both for the university and the state at large, the Cowboys aren't exactly diving into a pile of gold coins.
"The forecast for Wyoming's economy isn't very good," Burman said. "We've got to figure out how to manage with less, and that's what we're working to do."
The department is expecting a reduction of roughly $1.2 million in state-provided funds for the upcoming fiscal year, Burman said.
What's more, the match approved this spring by lawmakers had already been cut 20 percent from the one included in the previous two-year budget cycle. It was a reduction the department decided not to argue.
"When we sensed in the session that everybody was going to take a haircut, it wasn't in our best interest to fight it," Burman said. "There are sometimes when you look at it and go, 'We'll be thrilled.'"
Burman said that all Wyoming sports have taken "a slight budget reduction." The department's priority, then, has been preserving funds for areas that directly affect athletes. That means things such as nutrition, coaching and strength and conditioning staffs.
Areas such as marketing, media relations, video production, social media and academic support are facing cuts.
"Things that we used to pay people to do, we're either not going to do them or we're going to do them ourselves," Burman told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/24ttN2w). "And we're going to learn how to do them well."
Just as the academics side of the university has had to decide which departments are less essential, Burman anticipates that athletics will have to defend each of its 17 programs. A university must offer 16 sports to carry a Division I designation.
"I would assume at the end of the day, when we're talking about budget cuts, and it could be just within any professional realm, you just look at areas to see where you can skin the fat," basketball coach Allen Edwards said. "Not that we were ever in a sense of being wasteful with what we were trying to do, but you just try to be more productive with what you have."
With state money on the decline, Wyoming athletics will have to look to increase its self-generated funds, which come from ticket sales, NCAA funds, television contracts, the Cowboy Joe booster club and more.
For instance, Burman anticipates the men's basketball team scheduling a "guarantee" game for the 2017-18 season. These games send teams away to difficult environments to play high-level opponents in exchange for big paydays.
"That could be a six-figure game," Burman said. "We're going to have to start doing that. We haven't done much of that in the past."
Guarantee games are also an option in football. And whenever the Cowboys can persuade a high-profile team to come to their place, like Oregon in 2017, that can be a big moneymaker as well.
Bringing in alternate sources of revenue is more crucial now than ever, given the chance that the athletic competitiveness match might not always be there, which Burman says is possible.
"There is concern, because everything is on the table for budget reductions in the state," he said.
In the upcoming two-year budget cycle, the state will match money raised by Cowboy Joe, which boasts 4,700 annual members, dollar for dollar up to $4 million a year. In the previous budget, up to $5 million a year was matched. Before that, the initial match would provide 50 cents on the dollar, up to $1 million in a year.
The match is meant to make the athletic department more competitive. The budget specifies that the money cannot be spent on salaries or construction. Instead, much of the money goes toward student-athlete nutrition and cost of attendance — two areas that have caused the price of running a competitive Division I athletic program to skyrocket in recent years due to changes in NCAA regulations. Money can go toward recruiting, traveling, tutoring and equipment.
Football coach Craig Bohl notes that some incorrectly perceive the $8 million as going entirely to the football program, rather than the entire department. Still, Burman estimates that $2.5 million to $3 million of the $4 million per year goes to revenue sports: football and men's basketball. That's largely due to the sheer logistics of feeding a team of more than 100 football players.
Bohl called the funds from the state's Cowboy Joe match essential.
"I don't know how the other sports are, but I do know what we need to be successful in football," he said.
Edwards said it would be a "tragedy" for the athletic department to lose the $8 million match.
While the approval of those funds might have been a win for the athletic department, the Cowboys could use a few more wins on the actual field. The football team has won a combined 15 games in the past four seasons, including just two last year.
"It is critical that we become competitive, and we become a sense of pride for the people of Wyoming," Burman said. "I think we are in all the sports that are highly visible except for football."
Bohl said improvement is a must this year as he prepares for the third year of his five-year plan. His boss agrees.
"Well, I didn't expect them to be very good in year (two), but I didn't expect them to be 2-10," Burman said. "I never want to say it's OK to be 2-10."
Burman said Wyoming's state-funded athletics competitiveness plan "just got started" before the state economy tanked.
"I think if we can stick with it for five years, people will see that an investment in athletics will pay," he said.
During the 2014-15 school year, Wyoming brought in just $34,260,511 in revenue, eighth of 11 teams in the Mountain West. However, given that Wyoming spent only $33,364,169 on athletics, its profit margin was actually third best in the conference. Only Wyoming, Air Force and Utah State made at least $1 million.
And while the athletics competitiveness match does not fund new facilities, there are several projects in the works that Burman hopes will take Wyoming athletics to another level. Most notably, the $44 million high-altitude performance center set to be built next to War Memorial Stadium could give Wyoming a much-needed recruiting edge.
Still, not everyone is happy with the idea of athletics receiving significant state funding — even funding that has shrunk — while cuts are being made to other areas, such as K-12 education.
Burman argues that Wyoming athletics are the main reason alumni return to Laramie. They're also a source of pride for people around the state.
"It's important," Burman said. "You're a land-grant institution. You're the flagship of the state. Athletics should be the front door of your university, and I think that's why we've got to continue to focus. We have to take our share of budget cuts, but that doesn't mean we have to do anything crazy."
That pride only grows when there's just one four-year institution in the state to root for.
"Not to sound anywhere near arrogant, but I think the state needs athletics at the end of the day," Edwards said. "Even if you go around the country and (look at) the scope of what athletics does for an institution. Not to knock any other field on campus, but I just think it's an important piece for the institution to be successful.
"That money helps us in a sense of putting ourselves in a position to be successful. And I think when the athletic department is successful, I think the whole institution is successful, and I think the state will become successful as well."
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com