An exposé of money in sports
The Idaho State women’s tennis team wrapped up its fall season on Oct. 14 and despite a disappointing season the future looks bright for a program that has been marred by financial struggles.
In 2007 Idaho State University was in the middle of a financial crisis and was forced to adjust its expenditures in order to remain solvent. One of the cuts that it had to make was scholarships to several athletic programs.
For Bobby Goeltz, head coach of the Idaho State men’s and women’s tennis program, that meant losing most of the scholarships that kept athletes on the teams. The cut in funding meant severely hampering Idaho State’s ability to recruit players. Who wants to go to a school, add a time consuming commitment and not get compensated for it? The tennis program had already seen its fair share of troubles, from facilities that were below-par to a limited budget – but never had it been at risk of not being able to field a team.
Welcome to a college head coach’s worst nightmare. The obvious ramifications of losing funding came to fruition as ISU couldn’t field a full women’s team. Confidence suffered and so did their record as it was nearly impossible for the Bengals to win being shorthanded. “I didn’t realize how bad it was going to affect the program. We had three girls on full scholarships in 2007-2008 and with that cut even though they were doing OK, and they were doing fine academically… For three years I couldn’t recruit,” said Goeltz. “I’m competitive as a coach.”
The effects on the court were profound. As Goeltz explained:
“One year in particular, we had three girls on scholarship and one on a very small partial. Our fifth player was a girl in her fifth year and she had played a little bit of high school tennis. She was a sweet girl, but she couldn’t play tennis. We’d play only two [out of three] doubles because we only had five girls and then I would put that singles on at the same time and I’d say to the other coach ‘does your fifth girl play doubles?’ and they’d say yes, because there was a good chance that they were doing three doubles. So by the time they finished sets on these two courts, the girl at number five had already lost in two out of three sets. So basically, the other four girls had to win every other match or you couldn’t win a tournament. Now that’s pressure and it gets to the point that you just don’t want to go out there. What’s the point?” said Goeltz.
These financial woes are further highlighted by Sacramento State, a team whose tennis program has been completely funded by their director of tennis’ own pocket. So far he has put over three million dollars into the program, which has dominated the Big Sky. Sacramento State when compared to other Big Sky schools has better weather, better facilities, more funding and a large change in elevation and temperature that gives ita significant advantage over the Rocky Mountain schools. It makes you wonder, with such a disparity in funding and environment for tennis, should they really be in the Big Sky, or should there be some mechanism by which some portion of Big Sky funds go to a general fund and are redistributed equally among all schools – especially the smaller ones like ISU? To put this in some perspective, the women’s team at Sacramento State has won 11 straight Big Sky titles and 92 consecutive matches over Big Sky opponents. “I’ve had ten Athletic Directors before Jeff [Tingey], I said [to him] ‘don’t even try to compete with [Sacramento State] because you can’t,’” said Goeltz.
Despite the not-too-distant memory of financial woes, the ISU tennis programs are both looking to be on the upswing. The men’s program was one point away from making the tournament last season – a point that then senior Dan Buckingham had multiple opportunities to get in a grueling match. This year both teams have improved significantly with new recruits and more competitive tennis experience across the board; Goeltz thinks that both teams will make the Big Sky Conference tournament. “Just as quickly as it can unwind, you can wind it back up,” said Goeltz.
The tennis program at ISU has had a history of challenges, and despite receiving an updated and modern facility and having scholarships slowly reinstated there are still more challenges to be met:
“I don’t make any bones about it, we’re at the bottom of the totem pole as far as the teams [at ISU]. That’s just the way it is. For twelve or thirteen years we had six outdoor courts. They were in such bad shape that the soccer coach told me ‘whenever I talk to a recruit I intentionally go around’ because it looked more like a parking lot than a court. They redid all six courts, three years ago they took out four of them and put this in [the new indoor section]. The Big Sky doesn’t follow this, but by the rules if it’s fifty five degrees or more you have to play outside… Well, we only have one outdoor court,” said Goeltz.
The effect of scholarships is even evident when comparing this year’s women’s tennis team to last season’s. “I think you’re going to see a big change next year,” said Goeltz, “There are five freshman and a sophomore. I think if our team last year played our team this year it would go very badly for [last year’s team]. When you’ve got the money, you can turn it around.”
I incorrectly stated in a prior article that the Idaho State women’s team was in last place in the conference last season, when they owned the tie breaker over Portland State. I apologize for that inaccuracy. They also beat new conference additions Southern Utah and North Dakota, which bodes well for its record this season.
Because tennis isn’t a mainstream sport in the United States like it is in other countries, it is more difficult to find the kind of recruits that can make a program. Goeltz has been able to do that for many years, but with a lack of funding it just hasn’t been possible recently. This season is the first in which they’ve been able to make major changes via recruiting to the roster since the financial crises of 2007. Additionally, women’s tennis is much harder to recruit for than men’s tennis. “[Most schools have] eight full scholarships [for a women’s tennis program] and there is 230 to 240 Division I schools. You multiply 200 by eight scholarships and you have sixteen hundred players. Then there’s Division II, Division III and the NAIA. Where are these players? If you look at the men’s side [teams only have] four and a half scholarships. There’s a lot less scholarships and a lot more [players] out there,” said Goeltz.
In contrast to the Bengals, when Portland State experienced a similar situation it cut the program for several years even though the parents of the athletes offered to write a check for the costs. Eventually, Portland State reinstated the program after pressure from outside sources.
This isn’t the first time that Goeltz has experienced some sort of major cut in funding to one of the programs that he coached. A former University of Maryland head coach, he left that team when the school cut funding to several programs including women’s tennis, women’s gymnastics and men’s golf. Despite the prior experience, a job he eventually left, Goeltz decided to stay with ISU despite losing most of his scholarships. That reduction meant that the only real option to add talent was to recruit players to come to ISU from schools that had their tennis programs cut as well. Goeltz explains why he stayed this way:
“We had transfers that came in I couldn’t have recruited. In Maryland I was coaching them in 1989. They cut men’s tennis, women’s tennis, women’s gymnastic and men’s golf and took the scholarships out of the program. I said, ‘I’m out of here’ because you can’t compete in the ACC with no scholarships – that’s a joke. Now here, at the time I made a comment to one of the coaches at a coaches meeting and I said ‘you know, I’m curious as to how bad it can get,’” said Goeltz. Had he known, it is a very real possibility that he would have moved to a different school.
Even amid recovery, ISU tennis still faces some challenges that few other programs do. Goeltz is one of the few coaches in the NCAA that still coaches both the men’s and the women’s program. Most other schools at least have the funding to pay a full-time assistant to coach either the men’s or the women’s team full time and help with whatever team the head coach is in charge of. The salaries of assistant coaches at different schools is also vastly different, Montana State coach Jared Burnham makes more than ISU head coach Bobby Goeltz and assistant coach Mark Rodel combined.