UPDATE: Fairleigh Dickinson upset top-seeded Purdue in the first round of the NCAA men’s tournament on Friday night, becoming just the second No. 16 to beat a No. 1 seed.
On Oct. 22, 2020, as universities across the country were still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, Fairleigh Dickinson athletic director Brad Hurlbut logged into a system-wide virtual town hall and had his professional life turned upside down.
FDU president Christopher Capuano was discussing the school’s financial health, and flashed a slide that showed Hurlbut’s Knights, a small Division I program with 19 sports, could be facing major cuts. The athletic department was losing nearly $4 million with a budget of roughly $14 million, and the message was clear—changes were needed, and quickly.
Three years later, the Knights men’s basketball team is back in the NCAA tournament, facing fellow 16-seed Texas Southern in one of Wednesday night’s play-in games. Hurlbut, however, wants to talk about the department’s broader turnaround. New Jersey’s largest private university, FDU has added sports, seen increased athletic success, and managed to right-size it athletics books. The department says it’s on pace to be profitable, when factoring in athlete tuition, by 2025.
“It’s a tremendous feeling,” Hurlbut said in a telephone interview. “We’ve proven that it can work.”
In the days after that call with Capuano, Hurlbut says he and senior associate AD Jason Young “went into a bunker” to put together a new financial plan that would allow them to make changes their way. They ascribed to the theory—backed by a number of sports economists—that for schools of FDU’s size, a healthy athletic department can increase net revenue by serving as an enrollment driver. FDU had empty dorm rooms and space for more students, so more non-scholarship athletes would mean a lot more tuition at lower costs.
The school also had a $200,000 grant option from the First Point Volleyball Foundation and an untouched one-time distribution from NCAA that could be applied to a new sport. So in January 2021, just a few weeks after South Carolina’s president said the SEC school was considering eliminating multiple sports, FDU announced it was adding men’s volleyball and women’s lacrosse. The two sports will eventually add nearly 60 athletes to campus, but would cost a maximum of 16.5 scholarships. Hurlbut and Young bet that the entire Knights department would end up healthier in the end.
There were other changes as well. FDU coaches were told to increase roster sizes by adding walk-ons (again, more tuition-paying athletes), and the Knights are now recruiting for cheerleading. The department reduced its total scholarship offers and eliminated some full-time and part-time jobs (Young wouldn’t say how many). It also added more than two dozen graduate assistants—students who work in the department—as a way of increasing staff capacity. FDU now has 32, up from seven just three years ago.
The results, Hurlbut says, have been dramatic. In 2018-19, FDU had six sports that were “net student income” negative, meaning that it was costing the school more in athletic and institutional aid than the athletes were paying in gross tuition, room and board. Now there’s just one (women’s basketball). When accounting for team expenses like travel, operations and coaching salaries, a metric they call “net sport income,” the school had eight sports in deficit. Now there are four.
Neither measure, for clarification, includes external funds like donations and guarantee-game checks. A lot of that money, Young said, has been reinvested into athletes. FDU has renovated seven locker rooms and recently opened a new weight room.
The 21-team department is also 41% bigger. There are now 347 athletes, up from 246 during the 2018-19 season. FDU tuition is roughly $33,000 for new students.
Things haven’t gone perfectly. Hurlbut’s original 2020 pitch to president Capuano and his executive team projected the department could be profitable (again, including tuition) within three years. Now it is projecting 2025.
But Hurlbut says he’s thrilled the business changes have happened as the Knights reach new levels on the field. FDU’s women’s volleyball team made its first NCAA tournament appearance this year, and a Knights triple jumper competed at NCAAs earlier this month. FDU was 86th in Learfield’s national rankings of athletic department success for the fall season, tied with Power Five programs Kansas and Purdue.
“We’re winning at a level, this year, that’s been unseen in the [Northeast Conference] for a long, long time,” he said.
A victory or two during March Madness would bolster those winning ways—and likely boost revenue as well.
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