The big picture of Towson sports

Uproar over cutting baseball and soccer reflects a lack of perspective on college athletics

April 15, 2013|By Bob Leffler

For full disclosure's sake, I am a 1968 graduate of what is now Towson University (and a 1974 graduate of Morgan State University). I taught high school for 14 years and founded an advertising agency that has a sports specialty. Our company has done sports ticket sales campaigns for 43 university programs in 24 states over a 30 year period — including Towson — as well as several pro teams, including all of the local franchises.

To say that specializing in college athletics is not a way to build a big media billing agency is an understatement. There are at the most three sports at any one school that it makes financial sense to spend ad dollars on. As the landscape of college sports shifts under our feet, it has become quite fashionable to think that somebody is getting wealthy from the big money in college sports when, in fact, university presidents and athletic directors are scrambling to do two things. Make a "profit" on the one to three sports where that is possible and deal with the politically correct law of Title IX.

That is not a problem at, say, the University of Connecticut, where women's basketball is a money-maker, but that is the exception to the rule. When we take over a school's business we do an assessment, and we usually find two situations: uneven alumni support and the fact that the majority of sports lose money on a profit and loss basis. So how do we help? We build an advertising program that will talk to potential customers who have natural familiarity with a sport, whether they are graduates or not. And as one might guess, the biggest support bases are for men's basketball and football.

The outsized income for these sports goes to subsidizing the other varsity sports that the NCAA requires for Division I status. That status is essential for raising money for the whole school because it goes along with being taken seriously as an institution overall. That is really a shame, but it is true.

Towson, after years of underfunding and political underdog status in Annapolis, is emerging from hibernation. Former President Bob Caret (now the University of Massachusetts chancellor) and current President Maravene Loeschke, as well as former Athletic Director Mike Hermann and current Athletic Director Mike Waddell, have made several great coaching hires: football's Rob Ambrose (2008), men's basketball's Pat Skerry (2011), women's basketball's Niki Geckeler (2013), women's lacrosse's Sonia Lamonica (2010) and men's lacrosse's Shawn Nadelen (2011). Towson's teams are winning and drawing fans. When I see colleagues on the road or at my other school clients, I'm not apologizing anymore for my alma mater

So what has happened to the leadership of the university as they have sought to balance the ship?

I don't have inside knowledge of what happened. I served on the TU Board of Visitors for 12 years. It was a nice honor, but one got the impression that there was no real influence, only opining. I don't know what it is like now since my service ended several years ago. Moreover, I have never sought service on any of the university athletic hiring steering committees because, given my line of work, I did not want to be close to decisions that might affect hires at other client schools.

But looking at it from the outside as someone who is familiar with dozens of college athletics programs around the nation, it appears that university leaders ran afoul of a group of alumni, boosters and political leaders who don't grasp what it means for Towson to finally act like a real Division I school. The entire controversy is a creation of misunderstanding and lack of perspective and industry knowledge.

In terms of sports economics, Towson isn't competing with the other teams in the Colonial Athletic Association. It's competing for entertainment dollars with two professional football teams, two Major League Baseball teams, pro hockey and basketball franchises, and a slew of other Division I basketball and football teams in the region. That's a tough market, and unlike many of its competitors, Towson has the disadvantage of never having developed a strong donor base to prop up its athletic programs. (In fairness, as a former teachers' college, its stock of wealthy alumni is thin.)

It would be nice to have baseball and soccer, but to think that the profit and loss for these sports is not relevant and that they should just be subsidized is naive. The charge that Mr. Waddell is simply trying to grow his resume is also misguided, as no one who works in athletics ever wants to cut a sport.

Towson is the second largest public university in Maryland, and for too long, that translated into it being thought of as second rate. It shouldn't, but changing that requires a more realistic assessment of the environment Towson is operating in. If Towson gets caught up in the view from 30 feet instead of the view from 30,000, it may never achieve that status in athletics that should be its due.

Bob Leffler is the owner of Leffler Agency, Inc. Towson University is one of his 25 current university sports clients. His email is leffler2607@aol.com.

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