Operating a high-level college athletics department isn’t cheap. According to Virginia Athletics’ most recent annual financial report filed to the NCAA, the department’s operating expenses totaled $112.6 million during the 2018-2019 reporting year. To cover these costs, Virginia relies in part on contributions, which added up to $26.9 million in fiscal year 2019 and is the department’s largest revenue stream.
A significant portion of these contributions are funds raised by the Virginia Athletics Foundation. With the goal of supporting “a preeminent intercollegiate athletics program at the University of Virginia,” the VAF is a vital source of funding for the athletics department.
The VAF’s primary responsibility is managing and growing the Annual Fund, which financially supports Virginia Athletics in a number of ways. Over the course of 2019, the VAF raised over $18 million for its Annual Fund. In 2020, the VAF’s fundraising goal is $20 million, and as of the end of last month, the total sits at $16.5 million, or 82.5 percent of the goal.
“Our donors have been very supportive so far this year, and we hope to have a strong finish over the next three months,” VAF Executive Director Dirk Katstra said.
Specifically, the Annual Fund pays for the majority of Virginia’s grant-in-aid costs, which consist of the 316.6 athletic scholarships Virginia distributes to student-athletes across its 25 NCAA-sanctioned sports.
“The largest annual expense [that the VAF supports] is the scholarship bill,” Katstra said. “This year that expense is projected to be $21 million. Eighty percent of that expense is funded by our annual fund and the other 20 percent is funded by endowed scholarships that donors have established.”
In addition to scholarships, the Annual Fund supports a portion of the operational budgets of Virginia’s Olympic sports — including recruiting, travel and equipment costs — as well as a portion of the academic affairs budget, which includes expenses related to tutoring, mentorship and other support services.
The Annual Fund includes “gifts made by U.Va. fans including alumni, student-athlete alumni, friends and businesses” according to the VAF’s website. In 2019 particularly, over 11,000 donors contributed to the Annual Fund with University alumni contributing the most.
“The majority of our donors are U.Va. alumni — approximately two-thirds of our donor base are alumni,” Katstra said. “We do have good support from student athlete alumni with over 2,300 former athletes making a contribution in 2019.”
To incentivize contributions, VAF donors receive various benefits depending on their giving level. The more an individual donates, the greater the value of the benefits provided to them. For example, donors may receive priority season tickets and reserved parking spaces for football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball games if their donation amount is large enough.
“Approximately half of our donor base are season ticket holders as well,” Katstra said. “The other half make contributions but do not access season ticket or parking benefits. Almost 60 percent of the annual fund is generated by donors contributing $6,200 or more.”
Beyond the Annual Fund, the VAF raises funds in other forms as well, including endowments for designated purposes and gift commitments to support the Virginia Athletics Master Plan.
Similar to many other fundraising organizations across the United States, the VAF has been affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. The VAF staff has been working remotely for nearly seven months, conducting business by phone, email or Zoom. While Katstra says that the staff has adjusted well to the unique circumstances, he admits that the VAF prefers to meet with donors in person and that interacting with them virtually isn’t as effective.
In terms of the VAF’s 2020 outlook, Katstra noted that, “compared to this time last year, [they have] had a decline in number of donors and a slight decline in actual contributions made so far this year.”
“During the last recession of 2008 to 2010, we experienced a decline of approximately 20 percent in the annual fund, and it didn’t stabilize and begin to grow again until 2011 and 2012,” Katstra said. “So far, we have not seen a decline that steep.”
Katstra added that the VAF will not realize the full impact of the pandemic and recession until the end of 2020 when their fundraising year is complete.
Through thick and thin, the VAF depends on thousands of supporters who are passionate and enthusiastic about Virginia Athletics. Many of these donors are individuals and families whose desire to donate is driven by their connection to the University and their love for Virginia sports.
Class of 2006 alumnus Mike Ihrig became a VAF member shortly after he graduated. While he joined with the goal of helping Virginia Athletics, he also appreciates the additional perks he receives for his donations.
“I became a member to support the entire athletic department,” Ihrig said. “I enjoy watching all of our teams be successful on and off the field or court. It also doesn't hurt that I receive first access to postseason events — i.e. the 2019 Final Four.”
Similar to Ihrig, Class of 1993 alumna Stephanie Willett-Smith and her husband, Mike Smith, also became VAF donors soon after they both graduated from the University. In their eyes, Virginia’s “student athletes give so much of themselves to the teams and the fans that it is important to continue to donate and support their efforts through VAF.”
In particular, Willett-Smith noted that the VAF provides student-athletes with athletic scholarships as well as various other support services that otherwise wouldn’t be available. She further mentioned that the University is already a challenging academic environment as is, and student-athletes have the additional responsibility of performing at a high level in their respective sports.
“VAF helps [student-athletes] balance these demands and ensures they are provided with critical services that allow them to excel both in the classroom and on the field,” Willett-Smith said.
Looking ahead, the VAF’s role will only increase in importance as the operating costs of the Virginia athletics department continue to rise. In the last 15 years, the scholarship bill has grown over 100 percent. More broadly, Virginia Athletics’ total operating expenses have also increased year after year. Total expenses for 2018-2019 were almost $6 million more than the year before, and over $12 million more than 2016-2017.
Given that Virginia Athletics operates at a deficit — 2018-2019 expenses exceeded revenues by $2.4 million — the VAF’s ability to raise funds is essential to the financial sustainability of the athletics department.
Despite the challenges Virginia Athletics will face both in the present and the future, the department will be always able to count on a number of dedicated fans to continue supporting the teams and players they adore. Ihrig, Willett-Smith and her family along with many others have forged strong emotional ties with Virginia — ties that won’t be broken anytime soon.
“We have always enjoyed college sports, more so than the professional leagues and have really enjoyed bringing our family to U.Va. sporting events over the years,” Willett-Smith said. “As a family, we have made some of our greatest memories at U.Va. sporting events.”