Editorial: Rock Chalk Park situation is baffling
Of the mistakes Sheahon Zenger made during his tenure as athletics director for the University of Kansas, his decision to revise the lease for Rock Chalk Park is perhaps the most bewildering.
The incident indicates that Zenger either didn’t pay close attention to the finances of the athletics department or didn’t understand them. Either way, the misstep certainly justifies KU Chancellor Douglas Girod’s decision to fire Zenger Monday.
As reported this week by the Journal-World, in October 2012, Zenger signed an agreement on behalf of tenant Kansas Athletics to lease Rock Chalk Park from Bliss Sports, the company owned and operated by Lawrence developer and KU donor Thomas Fritzel. That agreement was for 30 years, with an option to extend the lease. Importantly, Kansas Athletics could walk away if it wasn’t happy with the terms going forward.
Four months later, Zenger signed a new Rock Chalk Park lease on behalf of Kansas Athletics. The new agreement gives Fritzel’s Bliss Sports sole decision-making power on whether to extend the lease for up to two 10-year terms. In addition, the revised lease holds Kansas Athletics responsible for paying several million in land-related expenses that KU previously was not on the hook for.
Asked to explain the reasoning behind the lease change, Zenger appeared not to understand what he had signed.
“At the end of the day, we don’t know what 30 years from now looks like,” Zenger said when asked about the lease. “We are trying not to hamstring anybody 30 years from now with anything we can’t project.”
Except that hamstringing Kansas Athletics is exactly what Zenger did when he signed the revised lease.
Kansas Athletics CFO Pat Kaufman offered a clearer explanation. He said the lease was revised at Fritzel’s request because it “had been determined that Bliss needed 50 years of rent to make it whole.”
The new agreement could cost Kansas Athletics tens of millions more in lease payments. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Zenger made such a decision. After all, in a series of Journal-World articles about Kansas Athletics’ finances, Zenger brushed off questions about how much faster expenses within the department are increasing compared to revenues. Such spending was necessary to keep pace with other schools in the Big 12, he said.
Kansas Athletics’ finances were healthy, Zenger argued, when the Journal-World pointed out that over the past decade expenses had increased 93 percent compared to a 68 percent increase in revenue.
The football coaches Zenger hired at KU went a combined 10-62 and the team often looked noncompetitive in the process. Football ticket sales lagged, and KU now has the worst attendance of the 65 teams in the power conferences. The FBI is investigating illegal payments by KU partner Adidas to the families of two KU basketball players, and KU cheerleaders have alleged they were hazed in an ugly incident last summer.
All of the above likely contributed to Girod’s decision to change leadership of the athletic department. But Zenger’s lack of attention to Kansas Athletics finances, exemplified by the Rock Chalk Park lease, certainly stands out.