All this talk of conference realignment often spurs concerns about Kansas University athletes missing more class time because of increased travel demands, or coaches struggling to recruit athletes without the help of a strong Big 12, or even fans missing out on familiar trips to schools that have become woven into the fabric of KU’s athletics history.
Heck, “listen to the Cornhusker’s wail” has been part of the KU fight song for decades.
But upcoming decisions about conference realignment — both on Mount Oread and elsewhere — will be expected to affect far more than the conveniences of KU’s student-athletes, job responsibilities of coaches or even the desires of Jayhawk fans.
Money, prestige and more are on the line as KU officials wait to see whether the home of the Jayhawks will remain in the Big 12, or instead be cast off into new or uncertain areas for the seasons ahead.
“I am optimistic that we’re going to be OK,” said Kevin Corbett, president of the KU Alumni Association. “It’s kind of that pioneering spirit of KU over the years: We’ve been through a lot to get where we are — settling the state, Quantrill’s Raid, establishing a world-class public university in the middle of the country — and we’ll get through this.
“We’ve been through a lot more than conference realignment.”
But now that the University of Colorado has agreed to become part of the Pac-10, and Nebraska has opted to join the Big Ten, there’s no doubt that the Big 12 will be taking on a new look. If it can survive.
Among the largest repercussions certain to affect KU: money.
“Obviously, the most positive thing that would come out of this would be a conference alignment that would provide additional conference revenue distribution for each individual school, including KU,” said Dale Seuferling, president of the KU Endowment Association. “But with so many unknowns, you can’t really project what conference revenue might be available in all these scenarios.”
According to financial documents KU files each year with the NCAA, conference revenue represents a significant portion of the revenues for Kansas Athletics Inc.
According to a report Kansas Athletics filed with the NCAA, the department received $12.25 million from NCAA and conference distributions, including all postseason competition, for the year ended June 30, 2009. The total trailed only contributions and ticket sales in helping finance the year’s expenses of $67.6 million.
For the same year, according to the NCAA-mandated report, KU had an:
• Athletically related outstanding debt balance of $46.57 million.
• Athletically related facilities annual debt service of $3.32 million.
Should KU secure a conference arrangement with enhanced annual revenue, the department would have additional resources to strengthen programs, improve facilities and otherwise cover expenses and debt.
If KU ended up without a home in a major conference, of course, the opposite could be true.
“That speaks for itself,” Seuferling said.
Then there’s the matter of prestige, and opportunity.
Being affiliated with major state universities — such as Big 12 members in Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa — affords KU connections that pay off in many ways, Seuferling said. Such associations can help with admissions, research partnerships and other matters.
Then there’s selling tickets. Kansas Athletics told the NCAA that it sold $20.7 million worth of tickets for regular-season competition during the 2008-09 year. The number is supported by strong in-conference opponents to help fill seats at Memorial Stadium and Allen Fieldhouse.
“The schools in your conference impact the attractiveness of schedules, (and) how many people are interested in buying tickets to see certain opponents,” Seuferling said.
Conference affiliations also enable endowment officials to connect with alumni and donors, a key to driving private support for athletics and other university pursuits.
Kansas Athletics reported receiving $27.33 million in contributions during the 2008-09 year, a total that includes Williams Fund donations that help donors receive access to preferential seating at the fieldhouse. Endowment officials often find that sporting events give Jayhawks a convenient place to convene, bond and offer support.
“We have a great interest in it, because the schools in your conference, in many ways, impact venues where you can bring alumni together in population centers,” he said. “Your ability to reach out to alumni in communities and states are impacted through athletic competition. …
“If that’s replaced with another location, or a city or school that is located where they have a high concentration of alumni and donors, that could be a positive.”
The Alumni Association already is making plans to adjust to the changing conference landscape, Corbett said. Whether KU ends up in a different conference, or welcomes new members to join the Big 12, the association likely will have new communities that could serve as homes for KU alumni chapters.
Such chapters would allow the association to expand the reach of the “Jayhawk brand,” which already is strong nationwide, said Corbett, adding that KU has the second-most recognizable collegiate mascot in the country, behind only Notre Dame’s.
“Certainly, this opens more doors and more opportunities to engage graduates,” Corbett said.
Likewise, he said, KU’s admissions operations likely will find themselves retooling some of their own operations to connect with potential students in whatever communities and markets end up engaging KU as conference partners.
Corbett remains confident that KU will remain in a powerful conference, with strong partners boasting both solid academics and athletics.
“And I can absolutely assure you, no matter what happens, that the alumni base will be ready,” Corbett said, of his organization with 45,000 members and more than 1,000 volunteers worldwide.