- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2011

The football team at the University of Virginia is reeling from a third consecutive losing season. The men’s basketball team is coping with a gut-wrenching defeat that kept it out of the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year. Scott Stadium is losing fans by the thousands. And perhaps scariest of all, many Virginia fans are running out of patience.

Yet Virginia’s athletics program is thriving more than ever before. The Cavaliers closed the 2010-11 academic year with a seventh-place finish in the Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup, which measures the broad-based success of 279 Division I athletic programs. It marked the school’s third consecutive top-10 finish and second-best result ever, trailing only the previous year’s third-place finish.

The achievements behind that recognition are impressive: a men’s lacrosse national championship, a fourth consecutive team indoor championship in men’s tennis, a College World Series appearance by the baseball team, five ACC titles, and individual NCAA titles in track and swimming.

For die-hards in Charlottesville, though, the Directors’ Cup finish conceals a major blemish. Out of the top 25 schools in the 2010-11 Directors’ Cup standings, Virginia is the only one that failed to make a postseason appearance in football or men’s basketball.

Olympic sports accomplishments are important, but a Division I athletic program cannot truly gain national prominence without success in the two arenas that, in Virginia’s case, generate nearly seven times more revenue than all other sports combined on a yearly basis. With new coaches, impeccable facilities and a student body hungry for something to cheer about, can Virginia restore glory to its football and men’s basketball teams?

Virginia celebrated a national championship in men's lacrosse this spring, but football coach Mike London had less to cheer about, as the Cavaliers went 4-8 in his first season on the sideline. (Rod Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times)
Virginia celebrated a national championship in men’s lacrosse this spring, but football ... more >

Starving for success

Coach Mike London has accomplished a lot over the course of his first year at the helm of the Virginia football program. His team posted its best cumulative grade-point average in 10 years this past spring; his players are intimately involved in community outreach programs; and his first recruiting class was ranked 19th in the country by ESPN. At the end of the day, though, he has yet to meet his primary goal: win games. The Cavaliers’ 4-8 finish last year meant the football team has won just one third of its games during the past three years, the worst mark of any of the 25 intercollegiate teams at Virginia.

Such futility factors into a stark contrast in the athletic department. The football and men’s basketball teams have combined for a .420 winning percentage and no postseason appearances during the past three years. During that same span, men’s lacrosse, men’s tennis and baseball, three teams that grabbed headlines this past spring, won 85 percent of their games and racked up six ACC championships to go with four NCAA titles. While football and basketball players sat at home come playoff time the past three years, the rest of UVa.’s teams were winning 18 conference titles and six national championships.

Rather than view his department as a divide between nonrevenue and revenue sports, athletic director Craig Littlepage insists that the establishment of a legitimate athletics program requires the success of many sports rather than a few. He remains encouraged by the development of the school’s Olympic sports programs while harboring optimism for the future of football and men’s basketball.

“The charge upon taking over as athletics director in 2001 was to develop a consistently performing top-10 program,” Littlepage said. “So as it relates to our achievements being aligned with our goals as articulated 10 years ago, we’re certainly headed in the right direction.”

Still, Littlepage cannot ignore the detrimental effects of struggling football and men’s basketball teams. Attendance at home football games has declined precipitously in recent years, falling from an average of 59,824 fans per game in 2007 to 45,459 last season, its lowest mark since Scott Stadium was expanded to 61,500 seats in 2000. The three seasons between 2003 and 2005 illustrated the symbiotic relationship between winning and fan support, as a total of just three home losses coincided with an average attendance above 60,000 during that span. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Cavaliers’ 6-18 conference record during the past three seasons led to a 2010 average attendance that failed to even fill three-quarters of stadium capacity, the third-worst percentage in the conference behind Miami and Maryland.

The men’s basketball team has experienced similar declines in attendance. Last year’s average mark of 10,156 represented a steep drop from 13,521, the 2006-07 average that accompanied the inaugural season in the $130 million John Paul Jones Arena. Although Virginia was one of six teams to experience attendance increases last season, it still only filled about two-thirds capacity of its lavish 15,000-seat arena.

In the face of potentially crippling financial effects associated with such declines in attendance, the Virginia athletic department has actually managed to increase its revenue even as ticket sales have decreased. Though football season ticket sales underwent a record drop from 39,532 in 2007 to 35,538 in 2008, the revenue generated from those ticket sales rose from $10,204,448 in 2007 to $10,887,500 in 2008. The profit increase came from the department’s 2008 installation of a new priority seating policy, which handed parking and seating preferences to Virginia Athletic Foundation donors. While the new policy brought in more dollars, it angered longtime season ticket holders who previously had been able to keep their seats by paying a considerably lower minimum donation. A poor economy has added to the pain of Virginia fans who aren’t willing to pay more money to watch a losing football team.

Why aren’t they winning?

Virginia continues to churn out NFL-caliber football players on a yearly basis. Its facilities are first-rate. The coaches associated with the football and men’s basketball teams are proven winners. So why do those teams seem so far away from a recent past, when bowl games and NCAA tournament appearances were as commonplace as polos and topsiders on Grounds?

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