North Dakota to explore change in conference affiliation

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FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The University of North Dakota is looking for ways to save money in its athletic department, and it could include a change in conference affiliation.

Mark Kennedy, who took over as president of the Grand Forks school less than three months ago, is taking inventory of athletics after the department ended the fiscal year with a shortfall of about $1.4 million. He has ordered a campus committee to analyze several factors, including the number of sports, cost of the programs and the conference landscape.

"I think what the president is saying is that everything needs to be on the table," North Dakota athletic director Brian Faison said Friday. "That includes conference affiliation. That includes sports sponsorships. That includes the institution's decision on support."

The Fighting Hawks are members of the Big Sky Conference, which has 12 base members and four affiliate members who each participate in just one sport. North Dakota has 19 teams in a league that requires 16 core sports, including nine for women and seven for men.

Andrea Williams, the Big Sky commissioner, said North Dakota is a "great fit" for the conference and she appreciates Kennedy's willingness to get a handle on the athletic department's business model.

"When you do have new leadership, it's absolutely their purview to want to come in and do an internal audit, review current standards and process, and evaluate how you move forward," Williams said. "I certainly don't have a kneejerk reaction to it. They have put together a comprehensive committee. They're going to take a look at everything."

Faison said he expects the intercollegiate athletics committee to present its recommendations to the president by Nov. 1.

The budget shortfall is due to primarily mandatory budget cuts that were ordered because of declining state revenues due primarily to low energy and commodity prices. Faison said that saddled the athletic department with a $1 million cut in the middle of year that could not be overcome. The other $400,000 of red ink was due to higher than expected scholarship, labor and operating costs.

Faison said the department has a balanced budget for this fiscal year, thanks to net expense reductions of more than $777,000 and revenue increases of more than $1.6 million.

While North Dakota fans enjoy the many picturesque stops in the eight other western states with Big Sky schools, it puts a tremendous burden on the athletic department travel budget. One change the school has made this year is getting smaller — and cheaper — planes for charter flights.

"Certainly the Big Sky has an enormous footprint in the United States," Williams said. "There are certain areas within our footprint that are a little more difficult to get to and to travel to for our teams. We're constantly looking at different ways to manage scheduling, to manage travel, because that's obviously going to impact budgets."

The three other Division I programs in the Dakotas participate in the Summit League for most sports and the Missouri Valley Football Conference for football, which keeps their matchups to bus trips. Faison said it would make sense financially and competitively to get North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State together, but there has not been any discussion about it.

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