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Save Iowa Sports group has a plan, and believes university president Bruce Harreld will listen

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Ron Kaminski is convinced his network of Iowa alumni has found a plan that can prevent four sports from being cut and even help the university create new revenue streams during a challenging economic time.

Now, he just wants a meeting with administrators to make his pitch.

And the group calling itself Save Iowa Sports believes it has the attention of Iowa president Bruce Harreld, based on a letter he sent last week, a copy of which was provided to the Register.

“If you are interested in meeting to discuss the strategy of ‘removing the burden on the Athletic Department’ by securing the money first (to finance the four sports), and then once the funds are raised, re-instating the four sports, Athletic Director (Gary) Barta and I would be open to having that discussion,” Harreld wrote.

Save Iowa Sports told the Register that 495 donors had come forward and pledged $2.73 million toward restoring the four sports as of Tuesday afternoon, eight days after the group started a fundraising effort. That response shows Kaminski that there is not only passion among Hawkeye alumni, but also people willing to back that fervor up with their own money.

Previously:Iowa Hawkeyes alumni press on with efforts to save four sports programs despite rebuff by Board of Regents

More importantly, Kaminski said, he believes the group has the beginnings of a financial model that would show Iowa, and perhaps universities across the nation, how to field Olympic sports teams that would be able to pay their own way.

“That’s been the goal. I love the university,” said Kaminski, who swam at Iowa from 1987-91 and is the president of a Chicago engineering firm. “This was tough on me. But I’m past that emotional initial reaction and I would love nothing more than the university to come out looking like an absolute superstar on the national scene.”

The Campus Recreation and Wellness Center is a top-notch swimming and diving facility that the University of Iowa built in 2010. A group trying to find a new financial model for the school's Olympic sports programs believes Iowa could use facilities like this to generate money.

The background: A challenge to Bruce Harrreld

Barta announced last month that he was planning to discontinue his men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s gymnastics and men’s tennis teams after this academic year. He blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the fall college football season, which, even in a truncated form, will leave his department with an estimated shortfall of $40-60 million this year. Barta calculated that cutting the four sports from the university’s total of 24 will save $5 million annually.

The Save Iowa Sports group has been trying to get Barta and Harreld to reverse that decision. On Sept. 21, it sent Harreld an “open letter” that it said represented the view of more than 500 alumni. Copies of the letter also went to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and everyone on the Board of Regents.

“It is our hope that with this letter, you might be a leader who recognizes, as we do, that you, too, can step forward in this difficult time and be a part of solving the problems, rather than defending something that doesn’t work,” the letter concluded.

Harreld replied two days later, indicating that he would be willing to listen but only if the alumni group had raised enough money first.

“Short of that, I’m afraid our time would not be well spent,” Harreld said.

How much money? Kaminski said he’s heard various figures from the university, but believes they were offered “off the cuff” and don’t represent the actual dollars it would take to secure the future of the four sports. Barta said at last week’s Board of Regents meeting that the group would need 10 times what it claimed to have raised, which was then about $2 million.

Kaminski, who said he’s long had a cordial relationship with Harreld, has since softened the approach. He said Tuesday that he knows Harreld and Barta have many weighty issues to contend with at the moment, and he’s hoping to at least be able to meet with some members of their staff so that he can present the plan that the alumni have worked out.

“With this program, we should have within a short period of time teams that are fiscally independent and proven to be able to show a net positive to the university, rather than a net negative,” Kaminski said.

The plan: Move non-revenue sports out of athletic department

Kaminski said the financial model conceived by the alumni group would bring non-revenue sports outside of the athletic department, where they would be free to be treated as their own small businesses, in effect. He said football and basketball, with their large TV contracts and rabid fan bases, are so dissimilar from sports such as swimming that it makes no sense to try to house them all under the same umbrella.

Instead, he believes the university can open up new revenue streams by profiting from the world-class facilities it has built, particularly for swimming and diving. The university opened the $69 million Campus Recreation and Wellness Center in 2010. It has already hosted one NCAA championship and was scheduled to do so again in 2021, until Iowa decided to cut the sport.

Kaminski said the swimming and diving facility could become a bigger resource by offering youth programs, expanded swimming camps and even activities for senior citizens, as natatoriums do elsewhere in America. Similarly, the university could offer up its tennis courts and softball fields as money-making ventures. All of them are operated by the school’s Recreational Services department.

Furthermore, Kaminski said he has seen that there is a contingent of alumni that would be willing to donate money and time to help Olympic sports be self-sustaining. He said there are hundreds of successful professionals who once competed at Iowa but never thought the school’s athletic department needed their philanthropy until now. The assumption was, when watching the Hawkeyes compete in football games in packed stadiums televised nationally, that the financial situation was fine.

“Now they’re realizing that, if we’re helping drive wellness programs and helping with the (non-revenue) teams and looking at places to bring efficiencies to the university, they’re willing to write checks for that," Kaminski said. "They’re not a group of alumni that are excited about writing checks so they can get better tickets to a football game."

He envisions the alumni forming advisory boards to help manage the Olympic sports teams.

“The expertise we have is just mind-boggling to me. It’s like being a part of a start-up. They’re geeked out on something that has really stirred them,” Kaminski said.

“It would be a public-private relationship where the private side isn’t looking for a profit.”

Finally, Kaminski said, the financial plan needs to address the way Iowa accounts for the costs of athletic scholarships. Currently, the athletic department transfers that tuition money to the university and counts it as an expense.

“I still believe it’s a paper transfer. It’s like me taking one division and charging another division in the company for labor, but it’s still under the same company,” Kaminski said.

“We need these sports to be outside the athletic department so we can know our true costs and live within those costs. We can look at places where we can have strategic fundraising. These teams all ran really well for a long period of time, and I think everything got caught up when the revenue went through the roof and spending went up with the revenue. And that’s a really dangerous spot for any type of an organization.”

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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