UBC vice-president, (students) Louise Cowin (left) and UBC Athletics and Recreation managing director Ashley Howard update the media at a Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014 news conference. After months of angst and controversy, the University of B.C.'s sports targeting review of varsity athletics has ended with largely the same roster of teams as when it began. Only five of 29 varsity teams, four of them ski teams that seemed doomed from the start of the contentious review, have been eliminated. Women's softball has been downgraded to club status.
Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG
After a six-month assessment of varsity sports that drew widespread criticism from alumni and caused anxiety and worry for athletes and coaches, the University of B.C. ended its controversial sports review Friday with largely the same lineup of teams on campus.
The university downgraded women’s softball and four small ski teams while maintaining 24 of its 29 varsity programs.
At one point Friday while trying to explain how the review was a shining moment for UBC athletics, outgoing president Stephen Toope described pre-review varsity growth as higgledy-piggledy. To his academic credit, higgledy-piggledy is a word. It means messy.
Perhaps UBC should have named its review the higgledy-piggledy.
Instead, it was called the Sport Targeting Review, then renamed the Sport Review Project when people assumed the targeting part meant that, well, varsity sports were being targeted for elimination.
Vice-president of students Louise Cowin, who initiated and drove the review, insisted from the start it was not about money, yet everyone talked about sustainability and varsity teams were asked to generate funding.
Cowin’s “think-tank” of experts “re-imagined” the model for athletics, placing international/national/pro sports at the top of the five-tiered totem, then changed it. And right until the end, UBC administration kept moving the goalposts, announcing Friday that four varsity teams not yet out of danger — men’s baseball, hockey and field hockey, and women’s rugby — are now expected to be become completely self-funding.
The seven biggest winners — men’s and women’s basketball, swimming and volleyball, as well as the Thunderbird football team — will receive more money because they aced assessment criteria that places a premium on athletic excellence, infrastructure and private funding.
Men’s hockey, baseball and field hockey and the women’s rugby program will have until at least the end of the 2014-15 school year to show progress toward self-sustainability.
“I have to be clear here: should this funding fail to materialize, we would have to reconsider the status of these teams,” Cowin said. “This funding criterion is really the tipping point for these four teams.”
“We had a meeting this morning and told our players we are retaining varsity status, and the whole room just erupted,” men’s hockey coach Milan Dragicevic said before the Thunderbirds’ playoff game Friday in Edmonton against the University of Alberta. “Everyone was very, very happy knowing there is going to be a hockey team. Obviously, this was weighing on their minds. But it has also been a huge rallying cry for our team this season.”
Toope said $4.8 million has been pledged by donors to support varsity sports since the review began. He said the annual athletics budget, which will support a new tier of competitive club teams, is being increased to $6.4 million from $4.8 million.
Men’s hockey, with the second-largest budget among UBC teams at $420,000, looked highly endangered during the review. But bolstered by private donations, including a $125,000 gift from Vancouver clothing company Lululemon, as well potential partnerships with the Vancouver Canucks and Vancouver Giants, UBC hockey successfully argued for its existence before the assessment committee.
“I want to be really clear that there’s a desire to be flexible here and to work collaboratively to reach a desired result,” Toope said of the four teams being asked to pay their way. “We’re not going to set an arbitrary cutoff that’s unrealistic for them to achieve. But we believe we can make dramatic progress over the course of the next couple of years.
“This review has energized the broad UBC Thunderbird community, sometimes in quite forceful ways. Alumni, supporters, sports organizations, community groups — they’ve told us they want to be involved and they want as many teams as possible to remain varsity. We have listened to that input.
“I actually believe that this is the start of a Renaissance for varsity sports at UBC.”
The program is already the most successful in Canada in terms of championships.
Pressure on Toope from athletics alumni, who have donated $50 million to the school during the last 10 years, may be why 24 of 29 varsity teams survived.
“I’d like to be gracious and say the university has responded well to the large amount of community support,” Dr. Derek Swain, an organizer of alumni resistance, said of the high survival rate. “I think it is a little disappointing that the expectation is (four teams) should be entirely self-funding. I have a suspicion that over time that may well change. We’ll be looking at a new administration very soon.”
Another alumnus who attended the press conference on campus, attorney and former hockey player Kerri Farion, was less generous.
“I think the process has been anything but transparent and clear,” she said. “The misrepresentation of the facts (by the university) has been extraordinary here.”
The review was originally scheduled to conclude this spring, but was fast-tracked. Toope leaves UBC in June.
“This idea that they sped up the process to keep away from the anxiety they were creating?” Farion said. “My own opinion is it got sped up because the varsity alumni were getting a lot more organized and (UBC) was afraid of the snowball fight that would soon be happening.”
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