UBC and the NCAA

Posted by: | March 12, 2008 | 18 Comments

[I’d meant to write this sooner, but work commitments sapped my time and writing energies. As well, there’s a very good Ubyssey article on the subject; read it here. I also note that there has been some discussion at AMS Exec about the Athletics fee; I’m not sure what it is, and I’m not sure on the latest developments.]

The annual NCAA men’s Division I basketball championship is coming up in a couple weeks. I’m excited. But did you know that UBC could compete in it as soon as a decade from now? More importantly, did you know that, even if you don’t give a rat’s ass about sports or athletics, you should still care?

The NCAA is the US collegiate sports authority. It’s big. There are no non-US members. They recently voted to allow non-US members into Division II (their second tier) on a provisional basis. UBC harbours an intense desire to join the NCAA. Why? Better competition, more exposure, better development opportunities, and fewer restrictions on offering scholarships. In short, Athletics wants to be bigger.

But here’s the thing about joining the NCAA. It’ll cost a ton. Initially, only a few sports would join, which would only require an internal budgetary re-allocation within Athletics. But UBC’s athletics facilities generally are far below the requirements for NCAA competition. They need upgrading. And that’s where students come in.

Right now, students pay a levy of nearly $200 to Athletics and Recreation. There’s long been a simmering undercurrent of resentment about it, as students still have to pay for gym memberships and intramural events. Indeed, UBC is among the only universities in Canada whose students still have to pay for gym passes. UBC Athletics has also long desired to upgrade the SRC, which contains the Bird Coop. But they can’t do it without student support. Nor can they get through any of the other development they need to do in the face of student opposition. Indeed, there’s a chance that an attempt to raise funds could trigger a backlash and threaten their existing mandatory student funding.

Heck, everybody is a being cautious about joining the NCAA, including the NCAA itself. If students opposed it outright, that could easily scuttle the project.

What a smart student leader should see here is leverage. There are many ways in which Athletics can enrich the student experience. They could provide free gym passes to people other than varsity athletes, reduce Storm the Wall fees, co-operate with a renewed SUB to include free student fitness components (see Mike Duncan’s campaign platform). Because right now we have an Athletics department that can’t afford to provide free exercise equipment or affordable intramurals to students, yet is seeking to spend more on performance athletics. And that’s a tension that students can profit from. Indeed, it’s a no-lose proposition. Yes, there have been conversations about a new Athletics fee, but I’m not sure if the NCAA application has, on the student side, played a role in the negotiation. And it should.

I have no idea what the progress of the NCAA decision is. But the deadline to apply for 2009 membership is June 1 – very very soon. Students should demand to know what’s happening, and demand to play a role in the process before it’s too late.


18 Comments so far

  1. maayan kreitzman on March 12, 2008 10:09 pm

    So Tim, just to clarify: to join the NCAA, the athletics fee would have to increase to improve varsity facilities. And you’re arguing that students could use this fact as an opportunity to demand better and lower user-fee intramural and fitness facilities if they agree to a fee increase?

    Maybe they could, but form my perspective, that’s not how the priorities should go. We shouldn’t have to piggyback on the desire for NCAA to get better athletics services. The 200$ we already pay is far, far too high for the level of service students recieve, and most of it goes to varsity anyway. Upgrading facilities would eat up any additional fee increase leaving little left for lowering gym memberships and intramural fees. So I don’t see the numbers adding up at all. If the university wants a better varsity program, they should pay for it, not the normal student that’s getting basically shafted already.

  2. Tim Louman-Gardiner on March 12, 2008 11:18 pm

    1) I’m saying that passing some costs on to students will necessarily accompany an NCAA bid, if UBC wants to actually compete across as many sports as possible.

    2) Yeah, I think the level we already pay is too high, too. A large proportion goes to funding varsity, the value of which to students is dubious at best.

    3) The “university” can’t pay for things without indirectly passing the costs onto students. It’s obvious, but giving Athletics more money (that Athletics didn’t independently fundraise) means money’s being diverted from somewhere else.

    4) Even taking a fee increase out of the equation, I still see some leverage with the NCAA process. Say, leverage to decrease the current fee, though Athletics couldn’t sustain itself if that source of income dried up.

    I also should have pointed out in my article that I support, as a whole, University and student funding of varsity athletes. Varsity sport is a great way for students to engage, learn, grow, develop, etc. I feel that similar other opportunities for non-athletes ought to be similarly explored and funded.

  3. Justin McElroy on March 13, 2008 12:40 am

    Maayan, Tim:

    From what I understand, UBC already has most of the necessary facilities needed to play in Division II – the nearly done Winter Sport Facility greatly helping in this matter. And the average Division II athletic budget is more or less in line with what UBC already spends.

    However, long-term, it only really sense for UBC to be in Division I if they’re in the NCAA. That’s what Bob Philip is shooting for. And an average Div. 1 budget is more than five times the size of UBC’s. So from an AMS perspective, the concern (in my mind) would be that the switch would seem at first to be a fairly inexpensive, harmless transition – but would rapidly turn into a giant money pit. So when/if Philip presents a formal plan to the university, people should examine very carefully where they expect long-term funding to come for a $25-million-plus annual budget.

    Now some seem to believe that donors will gladly make up this difference every year. I’m skeptical on that, for a number of reasons. But the AMS has a more than legitimate basis to demand that if students are potentially on the hook for paying way more in athletic fees for varsity sports, then they should at the very least get a free gym/cheaper intramural fees/etc. out of it.

  4. Stephen McCarthy on March 13, 2008 12:50 am

    Agreed with Justin, especially his first statement.

    I can’t claim to be making first-hand observations, but NCAA Div 1 schools typically make their money through their football teams (I was introduced to the phrase “football factory”, i.e. a factory for making money by selling football tickets) today. We certainly don’t (and probably won’t, given the level of support we show for our teams in general) have that kind of draw.

  5. Tim Louman-Gardiner on March 13, 2008 1:05 am


    Thanks for your comment. I should have been more clear – I was referring to the long-term goal of the NCAA experiment (Div. I, being competitive in all sports) which can’t be done without a) cash, and b) students being onside.

    You also make an excellent point re: money pit. I hadn’t thought about it that way.


    Not all schools make that much cash through football. Only the ones at the top of Div I-A that have huge stadiums and make it to big bowl games. The rest of the football programs are drains on athletic departments and actually hurt smaller sports like wrestling or lacrosse because of Title IX requirements. Not that that’s relevant to anything – I just like to talk about football.

  6. Jesse Ferreras on March 13, 2008 2:32 am


    The desire to join the NCAA puts the AMS in a very good bargaining position. Students could very well not support the entry of UBC varsity athletics into the NCAA if they don’t feel like they’re going to get something out of it. Because for the moment, students aren’t really getting much out of their non-opt-outable athletic fees, in my opinion. This could go a long way to sparking the debate about how much students are paying, a much easier thing to do when there’s an incentive on the horizon.

    Opposition to those fees won’t just come out of the ether.

  7. Anonymous on March 13, 2008 4:38 am

    Did someone say “referendum?


    – Sonja

  8. Anonymous on March 13, 2008 4:38 am

    oops, that was meant to be:

    Did someone say “referendum”?

    Silly punctuation.

  9. Patrick on March 13, 2008 9:34 am

    Tim, could you explain why we would shift towards Div 1?

    My understanding (something I dont have much of even in the best of times) was that we were applying for div 2 and our funding levels were about on par with the teams in that division?

    Is it a size of university issue?

  10. Rodrigo Ferrari Nunes on March 13, 2008 9:47 am

    From the presentation given by the Athletics director at the GSS council a couple of months ago, if I am not mistaken, UBC is looking into perhaps joining NCAA in ‘steps’, by not entering in as many modalities as possible…

    The presentation had sprout from a motion brought up by a councilor in Geography who proposed that GSS Council should take a strong stance against joining the NCAA, which generated a lot of debate.

    Other concerns were also raised regarding the type of salaries demanded by the upper level football coaches, and the possible social effects on campus life: some believe there will be heightened violence against women and bullying of profs, as it has happened in many NCAA institutions in the USA; others think that those problems could be avoided, dealt with, or are not real, and there was a lot of debate generated.

    If you are interested, you should sift through the GSS minutes (which are drafted in excruciating detail by Conrad [the AVP]). I am sure that you can find interesting material in the discussion and expositions that took place between an anthro prof (my advisor, btw) and the director of athletics.

  11. Justin McElroy on March 13, 2008 1:47 pm


    The athletic department is looking to apply for Division II right now only because that’s the only one UBC is allowed to join – Philip has been saying for years that Division I is the ultimate destination (at least in his mind) for UBC Athletics. Short-term, Division II does make sense, for the reasons already outlined. But if the reason for ditching the CIS and joining the NCAA is for higher competition, more scholarships, and attracting the best Canadian talent, then in the long-run, only Division I makes sense.

    Rodrigo, thanks for telling me that the GSS had this debate – I’m looking forward to sifting through the minutes. The shift to NCAA would be a huge cultural and financial shift for students and campus, and I really think a full, healthy debate about the issue is needed so that everyone knows what we’d be getting into.

  12. Neal Yonson on March 13, 2008 7:13 pm

    I had a 20 minute conversation with Bob Philip yesterday and here is the impression I got by the end of it: we are already paying for it and have been for a while.

    Athletics and Rec has ambitious development plans including a track, turf fields, tennis expansion, baseball fields, and a new weight room/gym and probably more stuff. He was playing up the fact that after development is completed, there will be a lot more capacity which should ease some of the problems that exist currently. But of course, these also translate into the new facilities needed for NCAA. So is it really for the students, or for the NCAA? Or could it really be for both? After the handling of the Aquatic Centre gym last year, one has to be skeptical.

    Instead of going into debt to finance the new facilities, it appears that Athletics and Rec wants to pay as much as they can up front, (though I’m sure some debt will be necessary as well) with some money coming from the university too. Athletics and Rec is purposefully running a surplus every year (this year it is ~$700k + money from absorbing the Aquatic centre for a whopping $1.5 MILLION) in order to fund these upcoming projects. That is why things are overpriced: I repeat, Athletics and Rec is purposefully running surpluses every year.

    There is no plan to stop running surpluses until at least 2011 and of course, it has been announced that fees are going up again for the next school year. The war chest must already be sizable at this point, and Bob Philip clearly wants it to grow further.

    The net effect is that we, the current students, are paying for shiny new facilities that will appear at some point in the future. Obviously, these will not be in place by the time most of us graduate. In addition, it is conceivable that future students may have very limited use of these facilities. I’ll make it clear again: that this is NOT something that might happen if we are not careful, it is already occurring and has been for at least a few years.

    Short term pain for long term gain? That’s how it was pitched to me. It’s one of those situations where it may make a lot of sense in the long run, but as one of the thousands of UBC students experiencing the short term pain, it hurts.

  13. Stephen McCarthy on March 13, 2008 7:25 pm

    Tim re: football. Good point. Since it’s UBC’s goal to eventually move to Div I, we’ll need to increase our Athletics budget. Certainly worth looking into how the top schools do that.

    Both Rodrigo and Justin mentioned that a shift to the NCAA would be a huge cultural shift as well as financial. I’m guessing here that we mean more support for our teams, along with the potential for side-effects that Rodrigo noted. Anyone care to give some analysis on the campus cultural effects of NCAA membership?

    Also, can anyone tell me how this would affect smaller sports? Will the NCAA let UBC compete in other leagues in sports not supported by certain NCAA divisions?

  14. Fire Hydrant on March 13, 2008 9:14 pm

    Re: The Athletics and Rec budget.

    Yes, they’ve been running surpluses for years, and putting them into a capital reserve. Bob wants to rejig the playing fields and astroturf a few more of them. We also have no running track and no ball diamond, and the new arena is only partially paid-for by VanOC. The Empire Games (outdoor) pool has been looked at in the past few years, because it’s imperial, while competitions are in metric. It’s getting a temporary (winter-only) bubble in the fall. Most of these facilities (e.g. the playing fields) have no room for bleachers and would not likely be NCAA facilities. I doubt an expanded SRC gym would accommodate spectators either.

    The sort of NCAA-related facilities I could imagine us “needing” would be a newer, larger War Memorial Gym, a new football/soccer/… stadium, and a baseball stadium with stands.

    The accumulation of capital reserves is something students have complained about in the past, and I believe Sophia, while VP Finance, convinced Athletics & Rec to reduce a number of user and intramural fees. That came out of a discussion around a $40 student fee Bob was hoping we’d raise for him for SRC Gym II.

    My take on the NCAA issue is that there’s nothing inherently bad about it, but we’d need to put some strict conditions in place around academic concessions, finances, and a variety of other items, and put them in place in such a way that they can’t easily be changed. Running a fee referendum might be one way for the students to get some leverage.

  15. Blake on March 16, 2008 6:06 am

    Purposefully running a budget surplus? This sounds a bit concerning and I’m glad that Sophia worked on this issue. I’d like to know what the Athletics and Rec fee would be if they weren’t running such high yearly surpluses.

  16. Matt Sanderson on March 22, 2008 4:32 am

    I’ve been a student at UBC for 5 years now. Since the bus loop moved, I can’t remember a single time when I’ve been reminded of any sort of upcoming student sporting event. Why haven’t I been marketed to?? What are ticket sales like?? If we expect UBC to be a part of the NCAA, we as students need to support it to offset the costs.

  17. Jesse Ferreras on March 22, 2008 6:37 pm

    Did this blog die or what?

  18. Brian E. Ng, MD on April 10, 2008 1:46 am

    I graduated from UBC in 2002 with a math and physics degree. I also went to the US for med school and I can tell you that college sports is big here (I knew that before coming down, being a huge college football and basketball fan). I think UBC should join several small, low-profile sports in Div 2, maybe hockey and baseball. People in Vancouver generally will care about hockey and if UBC starts doing well in hockey, they can apply to join Div 1. As UBC’s name recognition goes up, UBC should start to develop basketball and maybe football programs down the road. As for stadiums, UBC doesn’t need to build any. The team could play at GM place or BC place.

    I can tell you that most Americans do not know of UBC. UBC may be the premier academic institution in western Canada, but few outside of Canada have heard about it. Membership in the NCAA would change all this.

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