bilsky

Athletic Director Steve Bilsky believes that Penn Athletics needs to turn to donors more than ever before in order to keep growing and stay competitive in its current state.

Is winning everything?

If so, Penn Athletics has a lot of catching up to do.

Penn finished last among Ivy League schools and 102nd out of 221 Division I schools overall in the 2012-13 standings for the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, a measure of collegiate institutions’ overall athletic success for a given year.

In fact, keeping up with the win column across Penn Athletics has been an issue for a while now. Only eight Penn varsity programs — men’s basketball, football, men’s soccer, women’s soccer, women’s lacrosse, volleyball, women’s squash and wrestling — rank among the top three Ivies in conference play for their respective sport in the last 10 seasons.

In that same time span, programs such as men’s tennis, men’s lacrosse, baseball, women’s basketball and field hockey have all struggled, each finishing in the bottom half of the Ivies in conference play. Penn men’s squash hasn’t finished as high as third in the conference since 2007, and that remains the Quakers’ only top three finish since 1996. Penn men’s swimming hasn’t won an Ivy title since 1971 and has finished higher than fourth in the Ivy Meet Championship just once in the last 40 years. Penn baseball ranks last in Ivy play dating back to 2003 and hopes to rectify that with a new coach this season.

THE STATE OF THE UNION

Penn Athletics last assessed the overall success of its varsity programs in 2011.

“I would assume we [assess] every five to 10 years, that’s a good time frame,” Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky said. “So we did that, and [we measured] the number of Ivy championships. Because we’re a school that tries to be successful broad-based, we also measured the number of different sports we won championships in that period. Because one of the things we tell the teams is, as a goal, we’d like you all to win a championship while you’re here. In that measure, we came in third.

“The third measure is the number of football and basketball championships. In that measure, we were first.”

Penn men’s basketball and football have, in fact, ranked first and second respectively in conference wins in the last decade, even with the Quakers’ men’s hoops success declining overall in the past six seasons.

But with so many programs in the middle of the pack or lower, Bilsky is staying away from what he calls “tiering,” an approach many other schools are taking increasingly that entails putting resources into the athletic programs most likely to win as opposed to spreading the wealth.

“Certain schools decide that they can only be successful in a dozen or less sports, put all their resources in those,” he said. “Certain schools might feel they can be successful in every sport. Princeton would be an example of [that].”

Indeed, Princeton is the standard of athletic success in the Ivy League, the highest-ranking school among Ivies in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup standings 17 of the last 20 years. Princeton was also the only non-BCS school in the top 42 and the only FCS school in the top 56. The Tigers have never finished lower than 63rd, while the Quakers’ highest finish the past five seasons was 68th.

“Maybe Princeton has more wins than any of the other Ivies when you add them up, but maybe it’s not a coincidence that they also have more money per capita,” President Amy Gutmann said in August. “So we do have limited resources. But would you trade for Princeton’s football team? I don’t think so.”

“The campaign that we just finished, as you analyze what we tried to accomplish, tried to improve facilities for as many sports as possible,” Bilsky added. “Now going forward, we have a new gymnastics facility, we have a new fencing facility, we have a new rowing center. We have a new golf center. We built a new field hockey stadium. You would expect going forward that we’d be more successful in those sports than we have been because we didn’t have the facilities that measured up to that.

“So in the next 10-year measurement, basketball and football aside, you should see more championships and continued depth of success.”

It’s true that programs such as Penn softball and field hockey have enjoyed instant success coinciding with new facilities. Softball has reached the Ivy League Championship Series in its first two seasons playing at Penn Park, winning last year. After languishing as the last Ivy program to still use field turf, an outdated playing surface for collegiate field hockey, Penn field hockey has made the most of its new AstroTurf abode at Vagelos Field, competing for the Ivy championship this season. Facilities make a huge difference.

DEPENDENT ON DONATIONS

But facilities don’t come without money from alumni donors.

“If it weren’t for her, we would not be having this field,” Penn field hockey coach Colleen Fink said of Ellen Vagelos’ crucial donation for the field named in her honor.

And Penn Athletics is relying on donations more than ever. Penn Athletics’ total expenditures and revenues totaled out to $36,774,000 in 2012-13 according to its Annual Report. Forty percent of its sum on the revenues side came from subvention, or funding that the Division of Recreation and Athletics receives from the University. That means DRIA received $14,709,600 from the University in 2012-13.

But the allocated costs for 2012-13, which include contributions back to the University as well as facility maintenance and other operational expenses, total $13,974,120. So if you subtract the allocated costs from the subvention, Penn Athletics is only getting back $735,480 from the University. That number has fallen from nearly $1.6 million in 2009 to less than $750,000 in 2012, while the total revenue derived from gifts only increased roughly $25,000 from 2011 to 2012.

In other words, Penn Athletics isn’t looking to the University for financial support at all. It can’t afford to. Instead, it’s relying on gifts big and small from alumni donors.

So is Bilsky confident that this philanthropy will continue to grow on scale in the future?

“That’s a great question. I would answer it by saying it has to,” Bilsky said. “Because I don’t see the subvention increase taking place. The subvention grows at about three percent a year. Our subvention grows beyond that. So we’re going to have to relook at the profile of how you do athletics.”

Bilsky takes comfort in the fact that there are more donors and high-impact donations than ever. Nine head coaching endowments were added during Penn Athletics’ $125 million fundraising effort as part of Penn’s Making History campaign. Each varsity program has a corresponding sports board to help oversee fundraising, alumni relations, mentoring and networking.

As chair of the Development Committee of the Penn Basketball Board for the past three years, 1981 College graduate Allan Bell knows the value of networking, having secured summer clerk positions at the Sills Cummis & Gross law firm for New Jersey native Penn basketball greats Ibby Jaaber and Zack Rosen.

“Any players who are local to New Jersey and needed summer employment, we were happy to provide it,” Bell said. “The best part is getting to know the kids, getting to know the players. They are great, great guys.”

Joining Bell as one of the 18 Penn basketball donors in the $10,000-24,999 range for the 2011-12 season is 1987 Wharton grad Tom Donatucci, who remembers when the Penn Basketball Board had dwindled down to almost nothing.

“We had a board meeting, seven, six, five years ago, this is in the coach-who-shall-not-be-named era,” Donatucci said. “You know how success brings more people out? Well, this was in the Glen Miller era, and I, Allan Bell and [1964 Wharton grad] Rick Rockwell showed up, period. That was it.

“We had a meeting. We tried to bring in some young people with energy — no disrespect to older alumni givers because the program was built on those guys — but you’re bringing in guys who are 40-something, 50-something, and are happy to be involved and they’re doing great events, in Boston, in Chicago and in L.A. When they played at UCLA [in December 2011], [the Board held] a great event for Penn basketball.”

The Board and outside donors alike have been significantly more energized and willing to contribute money and time since Jerome Allen took over as Penn coach four seasons ago. One of just six Penn basketball donors in the $25,000 and above range for 2011-12, 1970 grad Nina Vitow likes what she sees in Penn basketball, and more specifically, its coach.

“I knew Jerome Allen as a player, he played under Fran Dunphy, who is a really wonderful coach and human being. I just think [Jerome’s] going to blow everybody away,” Vitow said. “He just needs another year to get his own team put together. I just get a thrill from watching the guys play, and I think I should support it.”

WHERE HAVE ALL THE ALUMS GONE?

But where are the donations going to come from in the future for Penn basketball?

While donors contributing $5,000 or above have increased from 36 in 2009-10 to 44 in 2012-13, only four alumni who graduated in 1993 or later contributed $2,500 or more in 2011-12, including just one who graduated after 1972. It’s true that more recently graduated alums are less likely to contribute big bucks as they settle into their professions and families, but someone has to step up.

“When students were getting PO’d at Glen Miller, I was glad to see that somebody cared!” Donatucci said. “It’s good to see people care, and we were those students 25 years ago. That’s the hardest part is, who’s going to replace us? Guys in the ’80s are pushing out guys in the ’70s and you start to see the guys from the ’90s come along. I hope there are guys from beyond. Because there is no Line anymore.”

Indeed, student attendance at The Line has dropped 66 percent in the past five seasons as Penn’s win totals have plummeted.

“In my era, ’85 to ’87, you’d hear the old-timers bemoan the fact that Franklin Field wasn’t filled the way it used to be, the Palestra isn’t filled the way it used to be,” Donatucci said. “Now we come and complain that it wasn’t the way it was when we were there! So hopefully the trend reverses, but that’s athletics across the country and things cost more, more options, on the internet. When I was there, we’d have triple-headers stay at the Palestra for six hours. Now they can’t sit still six to seven minutes.”

But is winning the key to holding current students’ interest and engaging their contributions after they’ve graduated?

“I think with any program, the more successful you are, the more desirable you are,” former Penn and current Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “It would be nice if the fans came out to the Palestra every night just like they come out to Temple University every night.”

DO STUDENTS EVEN CARE?

It would be nice for Penn basketball and every other varsity sport at Penn, but what incentive do students have if they don’t bring a sports fandom-heavy background with them to campus as freshmen?

Freshman Beatrice Field, born in La Ceiba, Honduras, and raised in 10 different houses growing up, isn’t really a sports person.

“I can count on one hand how many sports games I’ve been to,” Field said in August before NSO. “I actually wanted to avoid schools with really big sports cultures — which in Florida is like trying to get it to snow.”

When asked who Jerome Allen is, Field responded, “I know a Jerome and that’s about it!”

Freshman April Fisher grew up in Maple Shade, N.J., just 20 minutes from Penn. She hadn’t heard of the Palestra before NSO. A field hockey captain in high school, Fisher isn’t an avid sports fan though, and admitted in August she doesn’t plan on making supporting athletics at Penn a priority.

Born and raised in Louisville, Ky., all her life, freshman Elizabeth Walton loves watching Louisville and Kentucky basketball games, “especially since we have done so well the last couple of years.” She’s still rooting for Louisville.

These are the Penn students that work, play and embrace or reject athletics on their own terms, and Bilsky knows it.

“The hardest part to figure out is the demographics of the student body, how much of that is changing?” he said. “So as you have people who come in here [that] culturally didn’t grow up with athletics as part of their [lives] period, whatever that means — not saying that as a negative — you don’t think of basketball or football as something that’s a high priority. So if you are going to be exposed to that, you’ve gotta make sure the product is really good.”

Two-time honorable mention All-Ivy forward and 2007 grad Steve Danley has a few ideas on how to make that product better, or at least more visible.

“Winning is the biggest thing, but I think to get students out to games, you have to work through student groups,” Danley said. “We always have a big turnout for Greek night. It’s really about relationships in college. The whole program should be making a point to engage — the new model for student interest is for the team to take a leadership role on campus.

“Part of being a basketball player on campus is that folks know who you are. Reaching out to professors, student groups, even showing leadership on campus issues like being safe at Spring Fling or a drive to make student tickets free, all those things matter and would help highlight the program. Accessibility goes a long way too, having open practices, players writing honest (not canned) blogs and letting more students have the experience of being up close and feeling like they have access to the program.”

IT’S THE MOST IMPORTANT THING

What Bilsky, Gutmann and company all want is what Ed Rendell has. The former Pennsylvania Governor has been going to Penn basketball games at the Palestra since 1961, his freshman year. And he’s still got the Palestra in his life.

“It’s very nice living in Philadelphia. I go to Penn games with a lot of my friends from college. So it’s become a social experience for us,” Rendell said. “If you’re interested in Penn basketball as a student, you’re much more likely to follow Penn basketball as an alum.”

At least that’s the idea, even if winning isn’t everything.

“I am a very competitive person and I want to play by the rules and win by the rules,” Gutmann said. “But the real deep and important purpose of our athletics is not to win more than everybody else. It’s the experience of teamwork, of strong competition, of discipline. It’s the education and creating of character as well.

“If all we wanted to do was have the most winning teams, we wouldn’t be part of the Ivy League.”

That may be true, but winning gets students interested in football and basketball, as well as the equally important non-revenue sports for years after graduation. Financially interested. Institutionally interested.

After all, winning — and the mentoring, networking and developmental success that follows — is the easiest possible thing to invest in.

SEE ALSO

A toast to tradition, transvestites and Pennsylvania football

Franklin Field: Finding a way to stay young at heart

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