The University of Alaska Fairbanks plans to keep all 10 of its Division I and Division II sports, even as the UA Board of Regents agreed Thursday to let the university’s Anchorage campus drop four sports as a money-saving measure. Chancellor Dan White released a statement in August emphasizing his commitment to the athletics programs.
But with state budget cuts already pinching the university and the COVID-19 pandemic adding to the uncertainty, how to pay for athletics was a big question.
UAF has a plan.
First, UAF hired Judy Dellinger, who has strong ties to Fairbanks’ nonprofit community, to serve as the development officer for intercollegiate athletics, a new position. She will work closely with the UAF Department of Athletics, the UAF Alumni Association and other stakeholders to increase philanthropy for the Nanooks’ 10 varsity sports teams.
A couple of weeks later the university announced a yearlong fundraising initiative called the Sru’ol Campaign.
Sru’ol (pronounced Shrew-olth) is the Lower Tanana Athabascan word for sport or game, according to Keith Champagne, UAF vice chancellor for student affairs and athletics. The name “fits with the university’s demonstrated and successful commitment to Alaska Native and Indigenous people and diversity, inclusion and inclusive excellence.”
The goal is to raise from $1 million to $1.5 million in the next year.
Champagne said there are three components of athletic fundraising that have not traditionally existed at UAF and that he wants to see put in place: an annual giving program, endowed scholarships and a campaign for facilities.
“Those are the pools of which athletic fundraising rest upon,” he said.
The initial response has been positive, Champagne said. An early meeting was with members of the Nanooks Face-Off Club.
“People were just excited because Chancellor White has always maintained his commitment to Nanook athletics, and with Judy coming aboard and now a fundraising component, it becomes a demonstrated commitment,” he said. “People can see his commitment and see our approach to bringing in external revenue.”
While the news that Nanook hockey players had attended a large party and some afterward tested positive for COVID-19 may have overshadowed the announcement of UAF’s fundraising initiative, Champagne said it showed that the university’s processes for contact tracing and quarantine protocols work.
“We already have a lot of great community support and the prospect to give even more now that they know we will be continued,” he said. “It’s an iconic hockey brand, minus the hiccup of misjudgment exercised by some players.
“There’s still a lot of positives about our hockey program that I want to emphasize,” he said. “We have 100% graduation rate. We have well above a 3.0 grade point average for our hockey students. We typically in the last several years have not had any off-the-ice behavioral issues. So we have a lot to be proud about with our student-athletes.”
Although the schedule for 2020-21 has been delayed due to the pandemic, UAF is already looking to the 2021-22 season. The Western Collegiate Hockey Association, of which the Nanooks have been a member for years, is splitting up. Seven teams are planning to create their own hockey league, leaving out the Nanooks, the UAA Seawolves and the University of Alabama-Huntsville. UAA and Alabama are both dropping their hockey programs. Where does that leave the Nanooks?
“We’re in conversations with other teams right now,” Champagne said. Only one other Division I hockey team is on the West Coast — the independent Arizona State University Sun Devils.
“We’re hoping to have some kind of West Coast rivalry where there’s fire and ice, where there’s a battle in the sun, battle in the desert or battle in the Arctic, whatever the case is, because there are a lot of Nanook fans in the winter in Arizona and people who come up here from Arizona in the summer,” he said. “So we’re trying to create something exciting.”
The Nanooks are also trying to expand their brand in Seattle, with the advent of professional hockey team the Seattle Kraken, and have been running commercials in the area to recruit student-athletes.
“We’re prepared to rebrand and market ourselves as an independent program,” he said. “We want to capture the Alaska spirit of independence. The more successful we are with our brand, with our hockey program winning on the ice, administering a great program and providing excellent leadership, we will make ourselves more attractive to someone who’s looking to invite us to join a conference.”
With the administration solidly behind Nanook athletics, Champagne said fundraising will be moving forward.
“We had a lot of parents and students who stuck by us and stayed with us and trusted Chancellor White, trusted me, trusted our coaches and administration that we would find a way,” he said. “And now that we are finding a way forward, we want to move forward in a very urgent and deliberate and methodical manner to do what we can to support ourselves, because one of the things I’ve learned is people don’t support you or your program with their money or their time unless they know you’re working to support yourself.”
Contact staff writer Julie Stricker at 459-7532.