From The Basement: Proposed $30 million performance center prompts financial concern

Troy Dannen wants to lift Tulane into Division I.

Yes, Tulane already competes in Division I. But, you know, real Division I. Alabama, Florida State, Notre Dame, Clemson, Louisville, UNC, USC, the big dogs of the athletic world.

What do these programs have that Tulane doesn’t? Is it decades of established recruiting in pipeline states? The greatest coaches in collegiate sports? A history of success that draws top student-athletes in?

Well, it seems Director of Athletics Troy Dannen wants to cut in line by bringing in the best facilities money can buy, starting with a $30 million performance center.

Actually, the project has been estimated at between $30 and $35 million. But because I love our teams so much — Tulane, sports and Tulane sports are among my favorite things in the world — and do truthfully believe in Troy Dannen as a smart and efficient AD, I’m going to go with the low-end estimate. $30 million is no small potatoes, not even to a school with one of the highest endowments in the country — not when that same school faced a $20 million cash deficit just two years ago.

In March of 2015, the University announced the deficit to its faculty members. The deficit, however, had existed long before any faculty members were warned about it. Buyout packages were offered to school staff members late that fall in an attempt to prevent layoffs and stabilize the budget. Somewhere between 90 and 110 employees were either bought out or laid off, and even after this the University stated it was hoping to close the gap by the end of the 2018 fiscal year. With all this considered, is a $30 million performance center really within the school’s budget?

Let’s assume the school finds the money in the budget. The question remains, is now the right time?

Let’s look at other schools that have spent a similar amount of money on their performance centers. The University of Kentucky’s Joe Craft Center cost $30 million and was constructed in 2007 — when Kentucky had already established one of the most historically successful basketball programs in college sports. Florida State’s Coyle E. Moore Athletic Center? $25 million. Florida State’s football team has won more total games since Jimbo Fisher became coach in 2010 than Tulane has won since 1999. University of Michigan’s Al Glick Field House cost $26.1 million. This was finished in 2009, after the school’s football program had already been to 20 Rose Bowls.

These schools could afford to dish out tens of millions on the best facilities because their athletics programs were bringing in more money than they could count. Dannen did not give a timetable for the project, but regardless of whether it takes two, three, five, or ten years, it’s important to ask, will Tulane sports be profitable enough by then to justify the costs? And that’s not the first time this question has been posed and subsequently ignored. For those who don’t remember, Tulane tried this once.

An on-campus football stadium is necessary for any successful D1 football program. I’ll never argue that. But Tulane wasn’t ready for Yulman Stadium when it was built, and we’ve seen that since. The stadium has seen 15 home games since construction, and only one — the opening game of the stadium— has sold out. The $73 million project may have been too ambitious, considering the University’s goal for ticket sales — goal, not actual number — is $3 million. And that’s for all sports teams, not just football. Keep in mind construction on this stadium finished about a year before faculty members were notified of a massive budget deficit. And Tulane’s record in Yulman Stadium? 6-9.

This is a bad idea. There are much stronger, more forceful words in the English language that could describe it, but none quite get the point across as well as “bad.” We have a recent history of non-history, an empty shoe box for a budget, and we’re threatening to gut the already weak, recovering thread of our university’s budget with the machete that is the new performance center. Remember what I wrote in the second paragraph? How Tulane, sports and Tulane sports were among my favorite things in the world? I didn’t mention my least favorite thing.

It’s seeing people lose their jobs because of mismanaged budgets.

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