“I think the state of Spartan Athletics is very, very strong,” new Michigan State University athletic director Bill Beekman tells me on MSU Today. “Our two marquee revenue-producing programs, football and men's basketball, are performing at a very, very high level and a level where they're competing for Big Ten and national championships. I think those two teams can go into every game during the season with the belief that they're going to win. They're very strong programs led by extraordinary individuals of great integrity.
“The other 23 sports are all programs that we're going to spend a lot of time supporting. Some of them are on the cusp of greatness. You look at Damon Rensing's program in men's soccer with three Elite Eights in the last five years. Cathy George and the volleyball program were in the Elite Eight last year. Stacy Slobodnik Stoll has the great distinction of having won two straight Big Ten championships in women’s golf. And in addition to that, her team had the highest grade point average this year amongst our women's programs. Stacy's really succeeding on two different fronts.
“One of our priorities is to work closely with all of our Olympic sports and make sure that they have every opportunity to succeed, as well.”
Beekman says two of the key challenges facing all of college athletics involve the “arms race” and the future of television revenue.
“People closer to our age, Russ, remember, the cold war and the nuclear arms race. In college athletics, there's certainly an arms race of sorts, too. It seems like whenever you feel like you've got a new facility on line, you immediately hear about some other program across the major conferences that has built a facility that's just a little bit bigger or a little fancier with a few more bells and whistles. Certainly, that arms race to get in front of the eyes of the 16, 17, 18-year old recruits is quite extraordinary and to be honest, a bit irrational.
“You then have to figure out how to pay for that. At Michigan State, our athletic budget for this coming fiscal year is $133 million. A little over $50 million of that comes from television revenue. Again, not to date us, but folks like us are used to things like cable TV. I happen to have a dish now at my house, but when I talk to young people in their teens or twenties, they watch television or the recent World Cup or other major sporting events on their phone.
“Thinking about the monetization of what you would naturally think of as television and how that revenue model changes over the decades is something that we have to really be thoughtful about. When we build a building, much like if you buy a house, we bond it in a way that's analogous to a mortgage. We plan on making payments for upwards of 30 years. I think for the next five or 10 years, the model is fairly stable. But what will TV revenue be like 30 years from now when we're making that last payment? We really don't have a clue.
“Another challenge is just filling the stadium. Here at Michigan State, we have a stadium that seats about 70,000 people. If you look at the stadiums in our lead competitors in our division - the University of Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State - they're all putting 100,000 people in their stadiums. That's 30,000 tickets times seven home games times $75, $80, $85 a ticket. That puts us at a revenue deficit year in and year out of $20 to $40 million, depending on ticket sales. We have to fill our stadium and encourage people to attend our games, but even if we have a full house, we start a little bit behind the curve. Thinking about our revenue modeling and how we can be a little smarter, a little more efficient, use our money a little more wisely, and make sure we don't make mistakes - all of those are things that we're spending a lot of time on.”
In light of these comments, Beekman says some of his immediate goals for Spartan Athletics “are really to be laser focused on our strategic plan and our budget.
“As I said earlier, our basketball and football programs are successful, and our other programs are on a glide path toward success. That's really success in three ways. We want to make sure that every student is successful on the field, of course, but also in the classroom. And we want to set them up for success in life.
“We're going to be spending our time making sure that we've got our resources modeled in the right way and our strategic plan guiding us in the right way so that we can be on a path toward success. We'll adjust as we go, but we want to make sure that our programs have every opportunity to be successful.”
Beekman talks about the importance of donors and philanthropy to Spartan Athletics and to the entire university. And he discusses how his own time as a Michigan State University undergraduate impacted him.
“In the traditional sort of Spartan spirit, we are a place - and it's a little embarrassing to say this with a $133 million budget - but we're a place that's under-resourced relative to some of our peers. But we don't use that as an excuse. We find ways to work harder and we try to be a little smarter, maybe sometimes be a little edgier and use our resources as wisely as we possibly can and to be a little extra-scrappy.
“Our job is to make our Spartan Nation proud, and that's our 500,000-plus alumni all over the world and the many, many people who may not have attended school here but consider themselves Spartans. We want to make all of them proud. We'll work hard every single day to do that and to put our young people in the best possible situation to be successful now and later in life. And we want to contribute to the greater good of the university and make sure that Michigan State University is fulfilling its mission to make the world a better place.”
MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.