COFFEY: The Future of Canadian University Athletics Budgets

Toronto,ON- For U SPORTS hockey fans, April 20th was a sad day. After 36 mens hockey seasons, 23 years of women’s hockey, a combined three national championship appearances and the acclaimed “miracle run” title of 1994 the Lethbridge Pronghorns hockey program ceased to exist. The press release seen round the U SPORTS world came out just before 11am and spelled out the problem pretty quickly. Money.

Facing three successive years of significant reductions to its operating grant, the University of Lethbridge has discontinued its men’s and women’s varsity hockey programs. The elimination of the hockey programs is one of a number of budget reduction strategies in response to unprecedented cuts from the provincial government.

– University of Lethbridge

For those who don’t know ,the super long story short is that under Premier Jason Kenney the Alberta Government has been taking to the provincial budget with a hacksaw, and post-secondary education funding has not been spared. In their 2020 budget alone the province cut education Spending from $5.5 billion to $5.1 billion. What this meant for the University of Lethbridge was the budget had to come down. The University claims that they gave it their best shot, contributing an additional 1.55 million dollars to Pronghorn Athletics between 2015 and 2019 but with annual program fees reaching $750,000 to run the hockey program, at some point if the numbers don’t add up then problems can arise. Which is seemingly what happened to the Lethbridge Pronghorns hockey program this week.

Could this happen to other schools?

That’s the million dollar question for a lot of athletes especially, in the face of this disappointing news. Could my school, or my team be on the chopping block in part to budget cuts? Unfortunately ,there are already signs that this could happen elsewhere. In Ontario, the Doug Ford government has already put cutting athletics funding on the table once before. As part of his famed Student’s Choice Initiative, Athletics funding was original set to be part of the student fees to be made optional rather than mandatory as they currently are, which helps fund athletic departments across the province.

When she spoke to the Globe and Mail back in April of 2019 Western University Athletic Director Christine Stapleton laid it out pretty clearly that, “It was going to be a major challenge on campus at Western, but also a significant challenge for Ontario universities in the Canadian sport system.”

Despite reversing course on optional athletic fees, Doug Ford still ended up cutting budgets though, (and by virtue athletic budgets) through his 10 percent tuition cut. Laurentian University in Sudbury lost $10.1 million in funding after the cut and that meant for the Laurentian Track and Field team their funding was cut significantly,

The team was required to raise upwards of $25k to be able to keep their team afloat. As budgets shrink we could theoretically very well see “tertiary sports” (G3 in OUA) like Track and Field or Figure Skating lose their budgets to send money to the biggest sports, or even the opposite, where like Lethbridge the biggest and most expensive sports get cut thus freeing up overall money for school spending.

So What Should We Do?

In the wake of what happened, the challenge now is to figure out what do next? The players will argue that the answer is pretty simple: donations and fundraising. Torrin White, a 4th Year Pronghorn put out a strong statement on his Twitter just after the news broke, angry that the University wouldn’t consider letting the players try to save the teams.

Now it is not fair at all to point fingers from afar to say that Lethbridge should have given them the opportunity, nobody put the University nows the financial state that they are in and more information should come with time. Rather, looking long-term fundraising should be seen for what it truly is as an untapped for U SPORTS investment.

Some programs have been able to receive some financial help from donors. Back in summer 2017 the Ryerson Rams hockey program received a one million dollar donation from Al and Bridgette Kavanaugh which they were able to put towards financial support for their athletes.

In turn, Ryerson has put massive investments into the community, in 2018-2019 they Ryerson Athletics raised $75,000 to cover summer camp fees for hundreds of kids in need in the local community. Other athletes have had to fight more for their own survival like the Laurentian Track and Field team. The main point being that fundraising directly and both seeking out/excepting donations are key financial pillars that U SPORTS schools can look to expand on before it become directly necessary.

For students, simple things such as buying merchandise and showing up to games show athletics departments, universities and governments that these teams and what they bring to the school and the community matter. For athletics departments, finding new investment opportunities whether it be sponsorship or marketing can be potential large revenue sources. Frankly most of these ideas are spitballing and if we are being honest with ourselves right now, that’s really the point.

The death of the University of Lethbridge hockey program is truly a sad moment, but it should also be an opportunity for the schools and their athletic departments to pause, and to take stock of where they are at, and what needs to be done to continue the growth of university sport in Canada.

Cover Photo: Lethbridge News Now

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