Can Ben Jay Save UH Sports?

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Despite the existential threat he has hung over the athletic department’s head, Apple is one of Ben Jay’s greatest supporters. It was Apple who hired Jay, offered him the $293,000 base salary, with all sorts of performance bonuses—the largest for any UH athletics director ever—and saw to it that the $13 million debt the athletics department owed the chancellor’s office was forgiven. Apple told me he wants to do everything he can to support Jay and head football coach Norm Chow. Nonetheless, he says athletics are at a crossroads. “If the community, the government, the stadium authority, the students, the faculty don’t show their support, then that tells us what we might want to do,” he says.

In the meantime, Jay has drawn up an austere budget for the current fiscal year that’s about $2 million leaner than last year’s budget, and he’s out to milk every revenue stream he can get his hands on. Merchandising will be a big one, starting in 2014, when the athletics department takes over the sale of—and proceeds from—Rainbow Warrior and Rainbow Wahine paraphernalia. The Office of Campus Services, which operates the money-losing Rainbowtiques, currently handles merchandising.  “I think I can run it better,” Jay says. “I think I can make money.” A half million bucks in the first year is his goal.

He’s also trying to reduce the expense of using Aloha Stadium for home games, which costs the athletics department $20,000 to $70,000 per game. “It’s a broken model,” he says of UH’s arrangement with the Aloha Stadium Authority, which keeps all the concession proceeds yet charges the university to dispose of the trash.

Jay is doing what he can to get fans back in seats. Of course, nothing will help like winning football games, but in the meantime he’s launched two-games-for-the-price-of-one packages and other aggressive ticketing options to lure fans back.

As for breaking even in three years? “We’re going to try to get there in the first year,” Jay says. “But it’s going to take some ambitious revenue goals.” Hear that, donors?

Still, say the doubters, a balanced athletics budget is simply crazy talk. “It would take one marvelous bit of accounting to get the program to break even this year,” says sports commentator Bobby Curran, the radio voice for UH sports. “If Ben Jay manages to break even, forget extending his contract as athletics director. Make him president, or maybe senator.”

The volatile landscape of college sports conferences poses another threat to UH athletics.

Photo: Dallas Nagata White

In the world of college football there are the “haves” and the “have-nots,” the rich powerhouses, such as UCLA, Michigan and Ohio State, and the impoverished also rans, such as Lamar University and Middle Tennessee State. Between the two lie the “mid-majors,” which is where the University of Hawaii fits. Plenty of NCAA prognosticators believe that the current consolidation trend among the nation’s football conferences will ultimately result in the formation of a handful of giant superconferences. The danger in this for the Rainbow Warriors is that, if they fail to get absorbed into a superconference, they will slip into the cash-strapped netherworld of the have-nots.

“As conference realignment keeps going on, we have to be in one of those conferences with the haves, and not among the have-nots,” Jay says. “Because, quite frankly, if we’re in the have-nots, we’re not going to financially survive.”

But the problem is, UH doesn’t bring a lot to the superconference table. Its football team is hurting for talent, its academics are so-so, it has a history of light bulb issues. But one thing UH does have that might be of interest to an expanding Pac-16 or Pac-18 is access to Asia, a potentially enormous new market for college sports. China is especially tantalizing at the moment. Five Chinese universities have launched fledgling football teams, and when I met Jay he was planning a trip to China to see how they were doing. Jay envisions exhibition games, recruiting student athletes, and maybe even meeting each other on the gridiron. “The University of Hawaii is in a unique posittion,” he says. “It has a Chinese head coach, it has a Chinese athletics director—I think we have great potential to have a pretty good influence in Asia.”

Jay has been to China once before, to visit the village where his mother and father wed in an arranged marriage. They settled in Columbus, Ohio, and opened a small grocery in a blue-collar neighborhood a few minutes from Ohio State’s campus. They had three boys. “My parents’ sole purpose was to put their three sons through college, and they worked 16-hour days to do it,” Jay says. “Fortunately for us, my mom and dad were a little different from the typical immigrant parents who drive their kids to be doctors or lawyers. They just wanted to let us pursue our dreams.” For Jay, that was sports. As an avid basketball player in high school, he trained his 5-foot-8-inch frame hard enough to dunk a basketball, but he realized early on that his future was in the office, not on the court.

After getting a bachelor’s in accounting and a master’s in athletics administration from Ohio State—there was never any doubt about what college he would attend—Jay worked in minor league baseball in California, then as operations manager for the Cleveland Indians, took a detour out of sports to work for Bloomingdales in New York, became assistant athletic director for Fairfield College, worked as an administrator for the Pac-10 and finally landed back at his alma mater.

It's easy to see how Ben Jay might be a little less of a rabble rouser if he was an administrator who was content to sit at his desk all day. But he likes to roam. “I spend a lot of time walking the facilities because I want to see what the fans see, I want to see what the parents of our recruits see, I want to see what our student athlete recruits see when they’re here,” he says.

He takes me on a tour of lower campus, starting with the football locker room, which has been gutted and is filled with construction workers. We peek through the doorway. “A new locker room was kind of promised to Norm when he got here,” Jay says. “Funds have been allocated but the work has been slow to get done. Design has been slow. It was just languishing. But we’re finally underway, and we’re gonna have a new football locker room that’s finally worthy of Division 1A.” Then he closes the door and backs away, as if we might jinx something if we linger too long.