Rochester Should Have Big Time College Athletics: Tim’s Special Comments

*I don’t blog much. So when I do, I try to make it important. Welcome to the 2nd Edition of, “Tim’s Special Comments!”*

This website is dedicated to our local teams. However, people who lack proper local pride and loyalty are always quick to point out that the BILLS, Sabres and Orange are our regional teams, NOT our local teams. While their sentiments are noted, these teams are a very manageable distance and our radio stations, TV stations and newspaper have zero issue covering them. That said, something has wracked my brain for years. Why does Monroe County have six four-year institutions and none of them are full-time Division I members? RIT has Division I Men’s and Women’s Hockey but that is it.

A county with 742,474 residents, somehow cannot produce a major or even a mid-major Division I sports program? The City of Rochester has a  population of 206,284 but can’t handle this? Yet, “Cities” like Hamilton, NY and Olean, NY which house Colgate and St. Bonaventure Universities, respectively can handle this. Hamilton has a population of 4,108 , while Olean has a population of 13,711 . How is it that these smaller areas can support Division I athletics, yet Rochester and Monroe County can’t do it?

A lot of it has to do with the area’s history of lacking good, big ideas, and being content with being a minor league area. While Rochester and Monroe County are New York’s Festival Capital with events like the Lilac Fest, Park Ave. Fest, Corn Hill Arts Festival, ROC City Rib Fest and so many others, it lacks regular amenities that many cities of similar size have such as casinos, real big time concert venue or a major sports team. That is not to take away from venues such as Dairen Lake, CMAC, or Del Lago, it’s just that none of them are in the county or city. The Kodak Center and Dome Arena have brought in more concerts and entertainment in recent years since coming under new management and while that is fantastic, they are not major venues that bring in the big-name attractions.

Not every market can support major league professional sports teams, but it seems that most markets support some form of Division I athletics. Rochester with its over 200,000 people is larger than most areas that host Division I Sports! It’s the third largest city in the state with Monroe County being the ninth largest. Monroe County is the third largest in Upstate behind Westchester (If you count it) and Erie.

So how then do small areas like Olean and Hamilton and many others in the country do it? It’s a combination of three things: Tradition, Importance and Endowment. A school like St. Bonaventure has a rich tradition especially with its basketball program. They also put an importance on Division I athletics. It is a selling point of the school. They also have the money. They have an endowment of $72.4 million.

“An endowment refers to the amount of money a college receives in donations. This endowment is then used for a variety of things—scholarships, upgrading facilities, hiring professors, and more”.

That’s why your Alma mater always calls with a new funding campaign. So which universities and colleges have the most money? By and large, they are the ones with the most students and/or the most name recognition. Not all name recognition though is for athletics. Some, like the University of Rochester and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore are known for their medical programs.

According to which ranked the 100 richest universities in America, the University of Rochester ranks 46 with an endowment of roughly $2.2 Billion. That is up there with Boston College (41) and Indiana (42) and ahead of big-name athletic schools like Georgia Tech (51), Georgetown (60), Kansas (61), Oklahoma (62), Florida (63), and Nebraska (64). U of R is even ahead of regional sports heavyweight, Syracuse which ranks 81st with an endowment of $1.312 Billion. Harvard ranked number one at $38.3 Billion while the University of Tulsa ranked 100 at just under $1.1 Billion.

Here is the list of the six colleges and universities in Monroe County that offer four-year degrees by endowment:

  1. The University of Rochester – $2.197 Billion
  2. RIT – $938.2 Million
  3. St. John Fisher College –  $93.8 Million
  4. Nazareth College –  $69.1 Million
  5. Roberts Wesleyan College –  $28 Million
  6. SUNY Brockport –  $13.8 Million

There are three universities with funds greater than St. Bonaventure’s and except for Roberts Wesleyan, all of Monroe County’s higher education institutions have more students than St. Bonaventure’s, 2,381.

Clearly it means we don’t have a full time Division I Program because the schools just haven’t wanted to do it. They have prioritized their funds in other ways. Being part of major athletics has proven to raise a college’s profile exponentially. Think about how many colleges are well known just because of their sports programs. Having a Division I program would not just lift the profile for that institution but also for the area in general.

RIT is the closest to this given that they have Division I Hockey. There have been rumors that RIT has been in talks with the Patriot League. A 10-school league featuring New York schools, Colgate and Army (West Point). The league also includes Pennsylvania schools, Bucknell, Lehigh, and Lafayette. Boston University, American University, Holy Cross, Loyola University-Maryland and Navy round out this conference. RIT’s enrollment of 16,463 would make it the largest student body in the conference. It would have the fourth largest endowment behind Boston U, Lehigh and Holy Cross .

In a 2018 article for the RIT Reporter, Executive Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, Louis Spiotti, said, “It would be tremendously expensive having to fund a DI program, find a league, upgrade our facilities, hire more coaching staff, provide athletic scholarships — which you know is not inexpensive. It would be costly to the university.”

Spiotti, continued by saying that he had not heard a real desire on campus to move to DI and that moving to DI could force the university to cut some athletic programs.

It is understandable that there would be costs with moving to D1, but the long-term success can offset those costs. The  Polisseni Center is clearly a DI Hockey venue. They could if they wanted to put a basketball court in there, but they also have Gordon Field House which would need reconfiguration but would be a fine basketball venue.

Again, its all about prioritizing athletics and making it a key marketing tool for the school. Villanova has a smaller endowment than RIT by $220 million, yet they seem to not worry about the cost of funding a D1 caliber program.

The Patriot League, is a nice, regional conference, but it is a mid-major and when it comes to, “March Madness,” it is considered a, “1-Bid League.”  It just would not be a big enough league to capture the minds and hearts of Rochesterians. This is a mean thing to say but mid-major conferences are essentially minor league DI conferences.

Rochester is looking for something it can sink its teeth into, and the Patriot League is not it. St. Bonaventure has been playing one game per season at the Blue Cross Arena since 2015 and have played a total of 14 games in Rochester since 2000. Most notably was setting the Blue Cross Arena Attendance Record of 11,650 in a loss to local favorite, Syracuse in 2003. Other than that, the Bonnies have never drawn 7,000 and they play in the Atlantic 10 which is a higher level Mid-Major Conference. No disrespect to St. Bonaventure and their alumni base here in the area (My wife is an alumnus), but it’s not big time enough. Syracuse was in negotiations with the Blue Cross Arena to play an NIT game there and it is projected that the game would have sold out.

Rochester wants something MAJOR LEAGUE!

If any Monroe County school is serious about going D1 and being a mainstream part of Rochester life, then there is only one conference to go to. The one conference that many locals grew up with and that is the Big East! Image result for Big East Logo

It is not completely the Big East that we remember from when Syracuse was in the conference, however, it is still considered a major conference in College Basketball. Old time Syracuse rivals such as Georgetown, St. Johns, Seton Hall, Villanova, and Providence coming to the Blue Cross Arena would be a huge deal and a huge draw. In 2019, Connecticut announced that it was leaving the American Athletic Conference and returning to the Big East! Add in Marquette, DePaul and relative newcomers Xavier and Creighton and you have something Rochester can sink its teeth into.

If RIT were to enter the Big East and become the 12th member, it would have the fourth largest enrollment behind UCONN, DePaul and Georgetown and have the second largest endowment, only trailing Georgetown. If the University of Rochester joined the Big East, it would have the largest endowment in the conference.

If RIT or the U of R are serious about making the jump, then the Patriot League is just not big enough to be worth the while. The sponsors and support are just not going to be there for a one-bid league. Are fans really going to pile into Gordon Fieldhouse to see Bucknell? Doubtful. To make this worth while for the area and worth the investment to the school, it has to be the Big East.

The focus has been on RIT because they are the most realistic to going full-fledged DI. For the University of Rochester, it would take a major philosophy change. The U of R is often considered as the “9th Ivy League School” due to its well-earned academic reputation. They would have to shift some of that priority to promoting and improving athletics on campus. Another major difference between U of R and RIT is that U of R has football. The city has been looking for a tenant for the soccer stadium and U of R playing FCS level football would fit that bill.

If any school went D1 for basketball, they would most likely be able to work with the Pegula’s to make the Blue Cross Arena their home.

It must be said that St. John Fisher and Nazareth could each go D1 if it were a Mid-Major such as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) which features Buffalo area schools, Canisius and Niagara. This conference is only in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut so travel would be significantly cheaper. Fisher would have the sixth largest  endowment in conference while Nazareth would be eighth in the current 11- all private school league. Image result for maac logo

Roberts Wesleyan lacks enrollment and endowment but are a Division II school. Brockport being on the western edge of the county and in the SUNY System makes it unlikely that they could realistically make the jump.

If RIT were to jump to the Big East, it would become the number one sports entity in Rochester. RIT basketball would jump ahead of the Sabres, and Orange as regards to importance to this area. The hockey program is nice, but College Hockey is a niche sport. Only the Tigers home games are broadcast on a MyTV affiliate and none of their games are on a mainstream radio station. A full jump to D1 and the Big East would bring relevance to all of their athletic programs, including the hockey program which would still play in Atlantic Hockey.

This was not written to just single out RIT, but they are best positioned to make this jump. They have the enrollment, the endowment and are the closest as regards to athletic infrastructure. Rochester and this website will always support the BILLS, Sabres and Syracuse, but we deserve something that is truly ours. It’s time for a Monroe County institution that is always encouraging students to take risks and be great for the community, to step up and do that.


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