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University Rec Centers Face Budget Scrutiny

These days, Bill Crockett knows he better come prepared when he is approaching administrators about a need for added funding. His vice president warned him about that once the recession began to rear its head in university affairs.

“He goes, ‘I have to make decisions, and I can’t do it on knee-jerk reactions. I can’t do it because you’re pulling at my heartstrings. You need to bring me data. You need to bring me evidence,’” recalls Crockett, director of university recreation and fitness at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The added scrutiny has put an emphasis on constant assessment and analysis of data, not only to justify future expenditures but also to ensure the facility is running efficiently, Crockett says.

The same scrutiny is being applied at university rec centers across the country. The economic downturn affected the university recreation community later than most markets because many university projects and big purchases are budgeted for and planned years in advance. But now, while universities figure out how to deal with less revenue, recreation directors are facing added scrutiny from administrators who want more justification than ever for everything from an added staff member to more equipment or programming.

One way to handle the situation is by looking at access data. Crockett says he constantly tracks access data and graphs it to make comparisons, looking frequently at corresponding dates in previous calendar years to see patterns. Those patterns are not always what one would expect. For instance, this year, Crockett’s recreation center will be more appropriately staffed for what graphs from previous years showed him was an attendance dip the week before spring break—perhaps the result of mid-terms.

In another situation, Crockett changed the early closing time on Fridays after hearing complaints from members who wanted a healthy alternative to a typical college Friday night. As it turned out, his data showed him that about 10 times as many people were exiting the recreation center within the last 30 minutes of usage on Fridays than during the rest of the week.


“I was using our access data to make sure that we were staffing strategically, to make sure that we could do this expansion of hours without having a negative impact to other areas,” Crockett says. “And we did. We’ve increased our hours without having to increase our operating budget. And we’ve done it without having any dilution or discontinuation of services that were in place before.”

David Hall, director of campus recreation at Springfield College, Springfield, MA, agrees that a competitive budgetary climate has put an emphasis on analyzing data.

“We may expand or retract,” Hall says. “I think we’re not afraid to retract and kind of end something if it’s not working, and then utilize our resources other ways.”

Springfield’s recreation center now has about 50 group exercise classes per week, up from less than 10 when Hall arrived in 2005. He also moved the facility’s closing time to 10 p.m. Both decisions were based on attendance data collected at the door, via card scan and manually during exercise classes.

The recession and the need for data to justify expenses have affected Brown University in a different way. The Providence, RI, school has kept on track its plan to open a newly built, nearly $50 million facility this month, the culmination of 10 years of planning.

However, Matthew Tsimikas, assistant athletic director of physical education, intramural and club sports at Brown, says he has had to be frugal in making staffing decisions. He determined how many staff members he needs at the new facility by analyzing what other Ivy League schools were doing.

“We’ll be growing into this facility as we open, so we’re not exactly sure what staffing levels we will need,” Tsimikas says. “We’re more or less set up to grow into it rather than starting off with excessive staffing and resources and having to cut back.”

To determine the staffing that the facility ultimately will need, Tsimikas will continue to rely on data he collects after the facility is open.

The importance of data and analytics to justify spending at rec centers has grown as rec centers must compete now more than ever with other departments at universities for more limited dollars from state governments and donors. However, even after economic climate changes, these requirements for data will remain.

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