Falling Oil Prices Threaten University of Alaska Ski Teams
The University of Alaska is in the midst of determining the future if its athletics program, and the entire department – including the men’s and women’s Seawolves ski team – is in danger of disappearing in 2017.
In order to account for decreased funding from public resources provided by the state as a result of the downturn of the oil industry, the University of Alaska is facing budget cuts. The university’s athletics program is in one of the most vulnerable positions and many student-athletes fear that their teams will be eliminated. The Anchorage campus ski team, which competes as an NCAA Division II member of the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association, is in a league that has lost a number of participant schools over the past eight years including the University of Nevada, Whitman College, and Western State Colorado University (formerly Western State College).
Will the Alaskan Seawolves, who finished ninth at the 2015 and 2016 NCAA Championships and eighth in 2014, now face the same fate?
The university has identified three options under which the athletics department can contribute to meeting the university’s overall budget constraints. Unfortunately, none of the options on the table includes the continued high level of skiing that Anchorage has become accustomed to.
Option one – the most drastic – is to eliminate all athletic teams from both University of Alaska campuses, Anchorage and Fairbanks, but this proposal has faced initial pushback from the Board of Regents. University of Alaksa – Anchorage (UAA) Alpine Coach Sparky Anderson was glad to see resistance to the most extreme option after noting that President James Johnsen seemed comfortable with letting athletics fall by the wayside.
“The president has proposed elimination, and I think it’s something that he’s far more willing to entertain than anybody else. I think he is more comfortable with that solution than any of the Board of Regents,” Anderson says.
The second option is to apply for a waiver from the NCAA to allow UAA to compete with fewer than 10 teams or to create a consortium where Fairbanks and Anchorage share NCAA teams and compete as a single organization.
A representative of the University of Alaska – Anchorage states in an email that there is currently no list of teams that would be cut if it was to pursue a waiver or consortium, but the system is pursuing this option preliminarily.
“The Board of Regents took action in September on intercollegiate athletics, voting to maintain athletics programs at the University of Alaska. They did direct the university to bring down the costs and approved the direction of reaching out to the NCAA to discuss options to include reducing the number of teams via a waiver at both athletic programs to the 10-team minimum as a more immediate solution. Seeking a consortium with 10 teams in a single program shared across the two universities may, perhaps, take longer to achieve. In all cases, the regents supported stepping up private fundraising for athletics,” the representative says.
Both Anderson and Andrew Kastning, coach of the Nordic team, note that the NCAA is highly unlikely to grant the university a waiver. This option still involves drastic team cuts, as Fairbanks and Alaska would be asked to move from 23 teams in total down to 10. As a result, Anderson and Kastning question if the waiver or consortium model would be effective.
Lastly, there is the option of moving all UAA teams to the Greater Northwest Athletic Conference. But without skiing, gymnastics, or hockey in that conference, those UAA teams would be cut and men’s and women’s soccer programs would be created in their place.
University of Alaska has not presented much of an opportunity for the ski program to continue after 2017. Coaches Anderson and Kastning say they are doing their best to encourage the team to stay focused on the approaching season, which is not at risk, so as not to get caught up in something beyond their control. Additionally, there has been significant support rallying around the ski program. Many past Olympians from the global ski community as well as Anchorage graduates sent a letter to President Johnsen expressing how much the sport means to the Alaskan community.
Signatories of the letter include Olympians Holly Brooks, Kikkan Randall, Tommy Moe, Megan Gerety, Lars Flora, Sadie Bjornsen, Erik Bjornsen, James Southam, Verrier, Sara Studebaker-Hall, Anna Berecz, Rachel Steer and Alex Wilson. Flora, Berecz, Steer and the Bjornsens are all graduates of the University of Alaska – Anchorage.
“We are aware that the fiscal situation facing the University is challenging and that difficult and unpopular decisions will have to be made, but we urge you to continue funding the most ‘Alaskan’ sport UA has, ski racing,” the letter states.
Zuzana Rogers graduated from the university in 1999 and has been living in Alaska ever since. She was recruited from the Slovakian World Cup team and started skiing for the Seawolves in 1994. Her time on the ski team strongly influenced her decision to stay in the Alaskan community after graduating.
The University gave her the ability to receive a “top-notch” education, she says, and prepared her for her career as a physical therapist in Anchorage.
“UA was really important for me, to get me the knowledge and gave me the opportunity to start giving back to the community,” Rogers reflects. “If the university doesn’t have sports, it has a ripple effect the other way as well. I think that athletics at UA really brings the right people back to the university. Without sports we don’t really have much to show who we are as an Alaskan university. We are just another college without athletics.”
She also notes that the university offers a very diverse set of academic majors and unique programs that give students opportunities, and by taking away athletics there are fewer students who will be drawn to Alaska to study in its programs. This will also have the effect of leaving Alaska with fewer university graduates to enter the state’s economy.
The ski team boasts one of the highest GPAs of all Anchorage athletics programs and many of the athletes on the team remain in the sport and in the state after graduation.
Cedric Gagnon, who graduated from UAA last spring and served as captain of the ski team during his senior year, knows just how hard hit the athletes on the team and in the state will be if the ski team is eliminated. Some skiers may be able to transfer to other programs, but with so few teams to begin with it would be challenging to find spots for all UAA athletes. He says there would definitely be an issue finding spots in RMISA schools, noting that there are only six teams currently with limited space on their rosters.
“I think that having [the ski team] cut would also probably ruin skiing in Alaska,” Gagnon says. He mentions how important the UAA athletes are to the younger skiers in the state. “The only team that [younger skiers in Alaska] are chasing that is really a top level team is the university … so if you cut that I think you might cut the roots of all skiing in Alaska.”
Gagnon knows this firsthand as he has remained in Alaska to coach the U19 team at Alyeska. The parents of some of his current athletes are concerned about the possible elimination of the state’s university team as well.
Anderson, Rogers, and Gagnon all say that if the Anchorage ski team is eliminated, there will be fewer opportunities for younger Alaskan skiers, especially skiers who do not have the means to travel to the continental United States for competition.
“We were one huge family, and it was not just that you race for you in your individual sport – you are a big family with the downhill skiing and the cross-country skiing and with all the other athletics teams in Alaska,” Rogers concludes.
The University of Alaska Board of Regents is set to meet and make budgeting decisions, determining the fate of the ski programs, on Nov. 10-11, 2016.