Alaska NCAA Skiing Approaches Decision on Its Future

Gavin KentchAugust 23, 2016

A University of Alaska Anchorage skier carries the team flag of the Seawolves at the 2016 NCAA Skiing Championships last March at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs, Colo. (Photo: Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos)An internal review group has set forth its options for the future of NCAA-sanctioned college sports in Alaska – and for fans of cross-country skiing, most of the options don’t look very good. That’s the current status of intercollegiate sports in the University of Alaska system heading into three months of meetings and recommendations that will attempt to trim the university budget to respond to failing state finances.

As FasterSkier previously reported, Alaska is a historically oil-rich state that is suddenly not all that rich. The effect on the state’s budget has been pronounced, with calls for drastic cuts to virtually all aspects of state finances. The University of Alaska system, which has flagship campuses in the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), has not been spared. Multiple working groups were convened earlier this summer to critically evaluate several portions of the University of Alaska system, including athletics.

Three options, from nuclear to consolidating

The preliminary report from the athletics review team presented three options for the future status and funding of intercollegiate athletics within the University of Alaska system, and therefore within the entire state of Alaska. (UAA and UAF are the state’s only two institutions with NCAA-sanctioned sports teams; most of UAA’s 13 varsity teams, and UAF’s 10, compete in Division II. The state’s best-known ski team, Alaska Pacific University, is associated with a school but does not have NCAA affiliation.) Each option has several subparts.

Option 1 is the most drastic. This option involves eliminating NCAA sports completely at either or both of UAA and UAF. Cutting NCAA sports entirely at one school would reduce the overall University of Alaska budget by 2 to 3 percent. Cutting them at both schools would reduce the overall budget by 5 percent. This is “the most controversial option with the most severe consequences,” the review team wrote. Option 1, as applied to both schools, would leave Alaska as the only state in the country with no intercollegiate sports teams.

Option 2 would be to combine the two campuses of Fairbanks and Anchorage – which at a distance of 360 road miles are an all-day drive or a one-hour flight away from each other – into a single consortium model, operated under the name of only one of the schools. The total sports teams operated between the two schools would be reduced from 23 teams down to 15; only one school would sponsor each sport. A narrative description of the proposed athletics consortium model suggests that men’s and women’s cross-country skiing would operate out of Fairbanks.

The preliminary report acknowledges that it would require “an unprecedented exception from the NCAA to allow two athletic programs who are geographically isolated from one another to compete as one program while not duplicating sports in either location.” Other NCAA schools that operate in an athletic consortium model are much closer to each other than Anchorage and Fairbanks; for example, Columbia University and Barnard College are located across the street from each other in New York City, while Southern Vermont College and Bennington College are separated by five miles in the greater Bennington area.

Option 3 is to keep both programs, but with some modifications, based on switching solely to those sports that are offered by the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, or GNAC. (Currently some of UAA and UAF’s sports have GNAC affiliation, but some do not.)

In one version of option 3, “Both UAA and UAF switch to the GNAC model to decrease funding levels after initial startup costs. Both programs would only have sports that compete at Div. II level in the GNAC conference versus their current model of having some Div. I sports” alongside mostly Division II sports. In another version of option 3, UAF would maintain the status quo, keeping its 10 teams in order to meet NCAA requirements, while only UAA would move to the GNAC model.

Skiing is not a GNAC sport. In order to become a fully GNAC school, UAA would, among other changes, eliminate men’s and women’s skiing as well as gymnastics. For UAF to become a GNAC school, it would eliminate men’s and women’s skiing, among other sports, replacing them with soccer, golf, and/or track.

The review team acknowledged that the drawbacks to option 3 include “Loss of skiing, strong local (Fairbanks) support.”

While the exact number of parts and subparts may be counted in different ways, and some version of both option 2 and option 3 preserve some version of college skiing in the state of Alaska, it is also true that several of the options presented would mean the end of college skiing at one or both of Alaska’s two NCAA schools.

In addition to the three options surveyed above, the review team also offered additional budget reduction options as part of a restructuring plan for fiscal year 2018. These options included the elimination of the UAA men’s ski program (both cross-country and alpine) at the end of the 2016/2017 season. “[Skiing] was the first sport to be introduced at UAA,” the review team acknowledged, “and has been very successful as a member of the NCAA.” But “that being said,” the review team continued, “it is a sport that has very limited external support from Alumni and community members and does not have the ability to generate significant revenue to assist in sustaining the program.”

A decision to cut the men’s ski program – which at this time is simply one of several ideas that have been suggested – “would produce an immediate net savings of $272,981.00 based on FY 16 figures,” the review team wrote.

All sports, at both UAA and UAF, are fully funded through the 2016/2017 academic year. Both schools will begin their race season in the 13th annual Alaska Nordic Cup, an informal meet between UAA and UAF, at Fairbanks’s Birch Hill ski area in mid-November.

Next steps: Public meetings and searching for support

So what’s next? Lots of meetings. As the Strategic Pathways site explains, there will be public forums held with the University of Alaska president during the first two weeks of September. The president will then share initial recommendations with the University of Alaska Board of Regents at its next meeting, on Sept. 15-16. The Board of Regents will then present “final outcomes” at its meeting of Nov. 10-11.

“The State of Alaska is going through a very tough period and there are some very tough decisions that will have to be made,” UAA Athletic Director Keith Hackett wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “That being said, there is still time to provide input before any decisions or final recommendations are made.”

He recommended emailing as a means of sharing those thoughts.

UAA Head Nordic Ski Coach Andrew Kastning is working hard to ensure that the Strategic Pathways review team hears from the cross-country ski community regarding the value of the program that he coaches.

“Today I’m just doubling down on my community PR campaign,” Kastning said on the phone on Monday. “Because there is an online form that allows you to leave comments on the options presented, the pros and cons, and in fact we’ve been sending that link out to everyone we know. We’ve been rallying support from other institutions’ athletic directors and coaches to not just write in on that form, but also call [our athletic director], tell them what a value skiing is.”

University of Alaska Fairbanks women’s nordic-team skiers get together for a photo last season: (from left to right) Hannah Rowland, Anne-Tine Markset, Nichole Bathe, Martina Himma, Ann-Cathrin Uhl, and Sarissa Lammers. (Photo: Nick Crawford)Kastning’s counterpart in Fairbanks, UAF cross-country skiing and running head coach Nick Crawford, is doing the same.

“We’re optimistic that the UA President and Board of Regents will listen to the strong support of our community and will choose to continue funding both ski teams,” Crawford wrote in an email. “I encourage everyone to use the online feedback form to voice their support for UAF and UAA skiing.”

Crawford added, in a nod to the benefit of having two collegiate ski programs in the state, “The UAF and UAA ski teams have a long history of being friendly rivals but also mutually beneficial to one another. It would be a shame to lose either program as both would suffer.”

Back in Anchorage, Kastning speaks with evident pride of the virtues of his program and its athletes. “It seems pretty clear that President [Jim] Johnsen doesn’t understand what he would be losing if he were to decimate the athletic department,” Kastning told FasterSkier. “In regard to UAA skiing, we have perennially the highest GPA of all the sports teams. We have … the highest graduation rate. And we pull in people from out of state that stay and work here.”

Kastning mentioned plans to present his case at the upcoming public forum: “We’re going to be out there in force at the so-called town hall event [in September], asking questions and stating the fact – what I told you about graduation rates and high GPAs and what the community would stand to lose if it lost its collegiate ski team, as well as the loss of the ability to recruit kids from out of state. If they axe an athletic program, it would be so much harder just to get general students to come from out of state.”

“We have perennially the highest GPA of all [our] sports teams. We have … the highest graduation rate. And we pull in people from out of state that stay and work here.” — Andrew Kastning, University of Alaska Anchorage nordic ski team head coach

And speaking of students, what’s next for the student-athletes currently enrolled at and planning to ski for UAA and UAF? Under the NCAA Division II bylaws, Rule, a student-athlete transferring from one NCAA school to another must typically sit out his or her next year of competition before playing sports at the new school. But Rule provides an exception: this requirement does not apply when the original school “dropped (or has publicly announced it will drop) the sport … from its intercollegiate program.” That is, an athlete currently skiing for an Alaska school that dropped skiing would be eligible to compete for another NCAA skiing program in the winter of 2017/2018, assuming that space and scholarships were available.

The view from inside the UAA and UAF ski programs

“The options from Strategic Pathways, as they’ve been presented so far, are pretty scary for skiing, collegiate skiing in the entire state of Alaska,” Kastning said.

He underscored that funding collegiate skiing at any level less than men’s and women’s cross-country and alpine teams means that “you’re completely out of contention for a national title, which is what we’re trying to do at UAA. We support alpine and nordic.”

Kastning addressed the inherent suitability of skiing for the state of Alaska, contrasting it with some other proposed sports that might seem less apposite for a state where UAF students famously celebrate their membership in the 40 Below Club by posing for bikini photos in front of a temperature sign on campus.

Addressing option 3, which would involve dropping skiing in favor of a move to solely those sports offered by the GNAC (including, for example, soccer and golf), Kastning observed, “It’s like, nobody thought through what it would be like to have a golf team in Alaska. Or if you were to close your eyes and think about Alaska, do you think about golf courses, or do you think about white, snowy mountains, and the possibility of going out to play on skis? And obviously 99 percent of the Lower 48 people will think of skiing and white, snowy mountains, so why wouldn’t you have a ski team in Alaska? Of any state in the entire United States, it fits the most with the Alaskan identity to go outside and go skiing.

“So that was a little bit frustrating,” he continued, “to see the language that wasn’t in there highlighting the great community of skiers we have, not just in Anchorage but in the surrounding area, as well as the option presented that they would take away our program and add a soccer team, or a golf team? It’s borderline ludicrous.”

Crawford, writing separately, expressed near-identical concerns. “The idea of replacing skiing in the University of Alaska system with other sports like golf or soccer that are more suited to warmer climates seems ludicrous to me,” he wrote.

Kastning ended his interview by expressing his concerns about a potential domino effect if skiing were to disappear from one or both of Alaska’s two NCAA programs: “If Alaska didn’t support college skiing, then NCAA might look at the sport as a whole and wonder, What’s the point? If Alaska doesn’t support it, then why should we?”

“It’s scary not just for us,” Kastning added, “but it can start to be scary for the rest of the college ski teams around the country.”

Gavin Kentch

Gavin Kentch wrote for FasterSkier from 2016–2022. He has a cat named Marit.

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