The University of Alaska Fairbanks Department of Athletics hosted a community open house Friday at the Patty Center, providing an opportunity for guests to see recent changes to the athletic facilities and ask staff questions regarding the future of Nanooks Athletics.

While the fresh coat of paint in the entryway, renovated locker rooms and the new weight room were the changes most noticeable to the eye, organizational and financial adjustments are likely to have the greatest impact on the program’s future. 

A turbulent off-season headlined by $70 million in state budget cuts to the University of Alaska system over the next three years has made the necessity for a self-sufficient and financially stable athletic program more important than ever.

The department’s latest financial assessment done in December 2015 showed that UAF athletics operated at a $2,477,594 deficit in the 2013-14 academic year, a dollar amount only slightly above the median for Division II nonfootball programs ($2,436,600) that year.  

Total expenditures for UAF athletics in 2013-14 were $8,466,733. The department generated $1,733,737 in revenue through ticket sales, donations and partnerships, and was provided $4,255,402 in direct institutional support, which includes the general fund and other discretionary funds.

Keith Champagne, UAF vice chancellor for student affairs and athletics, estimates that over $1 million in direct institutional support has been cut since 2014. But despite the cuts, Champagne thinks he can create a successful five-year deficit reduction plan for the athletic department.

On June 11, Champagne, who formerly only oversaw student affairs, took on the responsibilities formerly held by UAF athletic director Sterling Steward Jr., who resigned after eight months in the position.

With Champagne at the helm of athletics, the department is no longer separate from the student affairs component of the university. This mirrors a system Champagne has long admired at Vanderbilt, a university known for its academic prestige and is the lone private institution in the athletic powerhouse Southeastern Conference.

Spurred by the desire to integrate athletics into the university community, keep the mission of athletics in-line with the university’s mission and reduce administration costs by eliminating duplicative resources, Vanderbilt eliminated the athletic director position and brought the department’s activities into an Office of Student Athletics, Recreation and Wellness in 2003.

“Nothing short of a revolution will stop what has become a crisis of conscience and integrity for colleges and universities in this country,” Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee said in a statement Sept. 9, 2003, alluding to the academic cheating and moral compromises that were beginning to permeate SEC athletic departments.

“Vanderbilt is committed to competing at the highest levels in the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA, but we intend on competing consistent with the values of a world class university.” 

While much of Vanderbilt’s mission behind the structural shift was to make a statement and reinforce that its academic missions and standards were the same for student-athletes as they were for the rest of the community, Champagne sees the structural shift at UAF as a way to help eliminate the athletic department’s financial deficit.

The Nanooks athletic department is what Champagne calls a “boutique program.” It has about 120 athletes in 10 sports, the majority of those being winter sports. The number of athletes and programs don’t require a stand alone department to operate.

“The reason I like the Vanderbilt model is we don’t have major resources, so I like to be able to have collaborative, cooperative, coordinated partnerships,” Champagne explained. 

“It’s more financially efficient, it’s more to integrate athletics into the university community, it’s to help the academic enterprise and faculty senate understand the benefits of athletics.”

Under the new model, Champagne oversees UAF athletics at the highest level, with a focus on the department’s strategic functions.

The day-to-day duties that typically belong to a traditional athletic director, including hiring, budgeting and finance, belong to the executive senior associate director for the Alaska Nanooks, Terlynn Olds, who joined the Nanooks on May 28. Olds was hired as the associate athletic director of internal operations and was assigned her new position Friday.

Olds has over 21 years of experience in collegiate athletics and her former titles have ranged from head basketball coach to director of athletics.

Despite joining the department in the midst of what many fear could be the end of Alaska’s collegiate sports, Olds sees potential in sports at UAF and feels that she can reduce the department’s operating deficit.

“What I gather is it’s been a long time since someone worked to make this place a gold mine … but this is a diamond in the rough,” Olds said in an interview at her office during the first week of classes.

One of Olds’ first agenda items was a fresh coat of white paint with blue and gold branding in the Patty Center entry area and student-athlete study space.

“Here, as a state institution, what I do love is, if certain things haven’t been done in a certain number of years, they can get done for free. So in our case, just paint can make a world of difference,” Olds said. “We are taking baby steps.”

Because the rooms hadn’t been painted in over 10 years, the central office general fund paid for the upgrade. The department also secured donations to provide new furniture for the student-athlete study space.

While the paint and furniture provide aesthetic upgrades necessary to continue recruiting athletes to UAF, Olds and Champagne are looking to create a 501(c)(3) fundraising arm and increase corporate partnerships to make the much needed financial improvements to keep the program operating.

“That’s the model that we want to use to develop a systematic, institutionalized, strategic fundraising arm for athletics and that’s going to be critically important during this time of low investment of state money,” Champagne said.

According to the IRS, a 501(c)(3) is a tax-exempt, charitable organization established for purposes that include organizing and operating national amateur sports. By creating a 501(c)(3), Olds and Champagne hope donors would give to all of Nanook athletics instead of to specific sports, giving the department more spending flexibility.

Under the current system, if a donor gives to the basketball team, it first goes to the UA Foundation Department, the fundraising mechanism for UA, which takes a cut of the donations. Additionally, the money could only be used for the basketball team, even if it could be used more effectively elsewhere.

In addition to the 501(c)(3), Olds and Champagne hope to reduce the department’s deficit with a renewed focus on corporate sponsorships.

“Last year, we didn’t have a corporate sponsorship individual that was dedicated to building those relationships so a lot of those past partners we didn’t partner with (last) year because we didn’t have the body to go out and say, ‘Hey, I’m from UAF. Do you want to do this?’” Olds explained.

“We probably left about four or five hundred thousand dollars on the table from partners we didn’t connect with last year.”

In August, the athletic department announced Nona Letuligasenoa, formerly the sports information director, as the new head of the athletic corporate sponsorships department, filling the vacant position.

Just as increasing sources of revenue is important to the financial stability and future of the program, continued direct institutional support will be vital also. In order to continue receiving that support, athletics needs to demonstrate the value it adds to the community, one of the motivations behind Friday’s open house.

“What we have to do is continue to show the value and that we are moving to become a more highly functioning Division II with a Division I hockey athletic program,” Olds said. “We can’t not have a sense of pride.”

Champagne shared similar sentiments.

“I want people to know this is your athletic program and that this athletic program will continue to be a gift to the community.”

Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMsports.