Welcoming SF State's shift of focus to athletics

SF State is awash with athletic gear. On a short stroll through campus you’ll encounter hats and shirts supporting the Giants, A’s, Raiders, 49ers and even the lowly Warriors.

It doesn’t take a detailed statistical analysis to show that this campus isn’t known for its athletic prowess. With a focus on academics as a priority, athletics tend to fall by the wayside — but University President Leslie E. Wong plans to change all that from now on.

The new president has pledged a renewed focus on the athletics department. Wong, who comes from a school that has an emphasis on sports, likely feels like there’s a void that needs to be filled on campus, and he’s right.

For a school with 30,000 students, the funding SF State receives for athletics is pathetic. The 2009-10 annual report from the California State University Office of the Chancellor titled “Voluntary Self-Monitoring Report regarding Equal Opportunity in Athletics for Women Students” shows a significant difference in how much money SF State spends compared to other CSUs.

San Diego State, which has roughly the same number of students as SF State and has multiple Division I teams, spent just more than $32.6 million for its men’s and women’s athletics during the 2009-10 school year. In comparison, SF State spent $3.5 million during that school year, a difference of about $30 million.

Wong realizes that the support for SF State athletics is unnecessarily low, both by students and in state funding, but his experience at Northern Michigan University has him thinking about changes.

During his tenure at NMU, Wong oversaw a sports department that sent multiple teams to regional playoffs, and had a corresponding surge in student enthusiasm. The popularity of the athletics programs at NMU even spawned a dedicated group of hockey fans affectionally known as the “Puckheads.”

While it may be a while before we see students doing the Gator chomp at a March Madness game, the fact that our new president is willing to publicly state his commitment to sports is an encouraging sign.

A winning team could do wonders for SF State’s reputation. Schools that produce playoff-caliber teams are able to recruit more talented players and thus are likely to reach the finals and win.

But an upgrade to our sports department will not only benefit the athletes who play on our fields and courts, it will also help to promote our brand to future students and, perhaps more importantly, philanthropically-minded alumni. Wong himself has said that successful alums could turn around and donate generously to the institution they graduated from.

The athletics department currently receives the bulk of its money from fees paid by athletes in the program, enhanced slightly by fundraising, and it doesn’t amount to much. We need those donations to be the foundation for SF State athletics to give us state-of-the-art equipment, fields and stadiums. That leg up, along with improved players, will ultimately help the Gators win.

When teams win, they generate excitement, and that excitement can translate directly to money in the bank. A quality sports department brings in excitement from the surrounding community, which generates even more revenue from game attendance.

Outside of the monetary benefits, sports unite campuses and turn them into communities. There’s nothing like the fervor that fans experience when watching their sports teams — at any level — play and win.

Anybody who was in San Francisco for the Giants’ 2010 championship or last year when the Niners almost made the Super Bowl will remember the exuberance that permeated this city. Imagine if that same winning spirit came to SF State.