It’s not unusual to hear fans of UCSB athletics complain about the choking nature of certain teams, or the fact that we don’t have a football team. However, if you listen closely, you’ll hear a lot of people talking about another issue: facilities. The battle for control of the stadiums, courts, pools and fields on campus is a complicated one, and ultimately it’s pitted the two main sporting bodies on campus against each other.
On one side there’s the Athletic Dept., headed by Athletic Director Gary Cunningham, a man who has overseen teams that have won a handful of Commissioners Cups, and even one National Championship, due in large part to one of Cunningham’s top moves: the hiring of Tim Vom Steeg. Across the artificial turf field lies the Recreation Center, which houses the Dept. of Recreation and a man who is arguably the most powerful figure in UCSB athletics. Most people outside of the sports management minor won’t recognize his name, but Jon Spaventa, the director of the Dept. of Recreation as well as the Dept. of Exercise and Sport Studies, has quietly led the way in the development of the Rec Cen. Few realize it, but Spaventa and his department are actually in charge of UCSB’s athletic facilities, leading to an uneasy balance between the two sides.
The history of the relationship between the Athletic Dept. and the Dept. of Recreation is long and complicated, leading to the current environment with two competing entities. When the Physical Activity Dept. was formed in the 1960s, athletics was actually a part of physical activities. Coaches were also teachers, and in the 1970s those duties were split evenly. When Spaventa arrived in 1979, the school hired a new athletic director and for the first time, the responsibilities of the position didn’t also include a position as chair of Physical Activities. The Recreation Dept. – which served the student body as a whole – had eroded in the ’70s and Spaventa worked to build the Recreation Dept. as a means to support the entire structure of athletics and physical activities. In 1985, Recreation and Physical Activities were joined, leaving the Athletic Dept. to stand alone. When athletic buildings are used for instruction, the school is allowed to receive money from the state for maintenance – a major reason why UCSB’s athletic facilities fall under the Dept. of Recreation. The Rec Cen was funded by a student fee referendum, but the department still receives money from the state because the buildings are used for instruction.
“If you don’t have instruction, the state doesn’t give you money to maintain the facilities, so if you look back historically there’s a rhyme and a reason to how the facilities have evolved and why they’re with this department,” Spaventa said. “Dollars have a lot to do with how the facilities have moved along over time and usually the dollars belong to the department that has the responsibility for the facilities.”
The chain of command has caused occasional problems for Cunningham’s department, which doesn’t control the facilities that its teams use for practice and competition.
“We’re what you call tenants, but we have working agreements and for the most part it works out,” Cunningham said. “I’ve been at four other schools before I came here and it’s a different structure than any school I’ve ever been at. Any school I’ve been at, the facilities are scheduled out of the Athletics Dept. with a cooperative attitude of not shortchanging students.”
The Dept. of Recreation uses the summer to put on several camps, which bring in revenue but also add to the wear and tear of many facilities. The Lakers Camp and Michael Jordan Flight School invade the Thunderdome for several weeks during the summer months, meaning UCSB teams are not free to use the facility at will. The Santa Barbara Foresters take over Caesar Uyesaka Stadium when school is out, adding to the number of games played on the surface and decreasing the quality of the field. In addition, the club baseball team has been allowed to use the Caesar Uyesaka Stadium when the baseball team is on the road occasionally, something that would never happen if the Athletic Dept. reigned supreme over the facility. A behind the scenes battle often ensues when UCSB coaches face off with Recreation to get access to fields for summer camps, which provide crucial financial resources.
“Occasionally you have difference of opinion on priorities. I wouldn’t say it’s a problem and over the years we’ve done everything possible to support the coaches,” Spaventa said. “Occasionally there are requests that are made that we may think are not economically feasible, profitable or realistic. Our job in the summer and the priorities that the campus has established for the summer is that it’s the time that we’re supposed to be making the revenue to support the responsibilities that we have.”
Those responsibilities include the need to raise funds every year to support the scholarship efforts of the Athletic Dept., part of an agreement reached years ago by the two sides. When the Dept. of Recreation was put in charge of facilities and scheduling, Cunningham says that they agreed to give the Athletic Dept. $240,000 per year to provide funds for scholarships. At the time, the payment covered about 44 scholarships, but due to inflation it now only covers about 12 or 13, an issue of contention with Cunningham. Spaventa says that his department has paid out an excess of $4 million over the years due to the arrangement, a deal that he says was supposed to end years ago. The initial arrangement was that Recreation would grow programs until the Athletic Dept. was on sound financial ground and hired its own fundraiser, but that never happened. Spaventa says that the cost of athletics has grown to a point that the university didn’t feel that the Dept. of Recreation could be excused from its financial responsibility.
“It’s a historical arrangement that we have had with athletics since I took over this position. One of the charges that the vice chancellor gave to me was to try to develop recreational programs that might be able to fund some of the ongoing needs of the athletic department which first went into deficit back in 1980,” Spaventa said. “Many of the programs that I’ve been responsible for starting and managing and growing have started with the idea of contributing money to the grant and aid pool for athletic scholarships, and we still maintain that responsibility today. Both sides have strong feelings about it. It’s an antiquated arrangement and in many ways I wish we didn’t have it but without the opportunity to schedule the facilities it’s difficult to generate funds.”
The battles over control of facilities are far from just a summer issue. While the aquatic teams have been trying to get a new pool for years, the issue gained momentum with both departments when Campus Pool recently broke down. The stranded teams spent weeks practicing at the Rec Cen Pool, an arrangement that was forbidden by the students who originally put up the money for the Rec Cen years ago.
“It’s up to the students to decide what they want to do and unfortunately for our aquatics programs, when the Recreation Center was approved and the governance board was formed, the students took a pretty strong position that they didn’t want any team, club, intercollegiate, community to have regular ongoing use of the facility,” Spaventa said. “Early on I think our aquatic teams felt a little disenfranchised but the board and the students took a position that that wasn’t going to happen. There’s an incongruity in that we have this beautiful pool for recreational use and the quality of the pool that we have for intercollegiate use doesn’t match up and that’s really unfortunate.”
The Dept. of Recreation contributed $300,000 to get the pool back up and running, and UCSB’s aquatic teams will continue to train and compete there in the near future, but a new pool remains an issue for both departments. Cunningham believes that the construction of new buildings in the surrounding areas will eventually lead to the demise of Campus Pool.
“This pool over here is scheduled to go. When they build the new buildings it’s gone so the question for the university is where are our aquatics going to go,” Cunningham said. “If another pool is not built, there’s only one solution, but the Rec Cen, and the Rec Cen Governing Board doesn’t want ICA in their pool.”
For his part, Spaventa completely disagrees with the idea that new academic buildings will force the closure of Campus Pool, pointing out that professors and students have been privy to the sounds and whistles of aquatic practices and events for years.
“I don’t see how the campus could allow [Campus Pool to close]. The truth is that the whistles have been blown since the pool has been there and since the late 1950s, and the sound of the whistles goes to South Hall and travels all around and it’s never been significant enough that the complaints would cause the campus to do anything about it,” Spaventa said.
The proposed solution is to build a new state-of-the-art pool, replacing a facility that can’t hold a candle to the collegiate pools around the state. Campus Pool is hardly suitable for a Division I program and hinders the success of the aquatic teams, in addition to being a huge turn off to potential recruits. Like always though, money has become the big issue.
“We’re being told it’ll be about $12 million and that’s a lot of money to raise. We think we can raise four to five million, but we don’t know whether we can raise $12 million,” Cunningham said. “The big controversy is where to put it but we don’t have the money to put it anywhere right now.”
Another pressing issue facing the Athletic Dept. is the state of the bathrooms – if the portable toilets can even be called that – at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium. The Athletic Dept. is well aware of the problem, but raising money for a remedy has proven to be a difficult task.
“I hate the bathrooms, but again it’s a money deal,” Cunningham said. “You have to go through all kinds of wickets on this campus with different committees and I’ve never heard of anyone interested in donating for a restroom, but it’s such a needed thing. I’m absolutely embarrassed by it, though.”
While Spaventa and his department are glad to help with on-field concerns, issues like seating and restrooms don’t fall under their control.
Despite their differences, the Athletic Dept. and the Dept. of Recreation have managed to come together on many occasions for the good of UCSB athletics. After deferred maintenance fees for the tennis courts stopped coming from the state, the departments combined resources to help the women’s tennis team and resurface the courts that ironically lie between the two departments’ buildings. Fundraising from coaches has led to upgrades at Harder and Caesar Uyesaka in recent years, and the Dept. of Recreation has also helped upgrade the bleachers and field at Harder.
Cunningham calls his relationship with the Dept. of Recreation “OK, but not without challenges,” and says it “is what it is.” On the other side, Spaventa views the relationship as “positive and supportive,” but he acknowledges that the situation has caused some “tension and a little bit of friction.” While Spaventa has been running his department for almost three decades, the Athletic Dept. is in search of yet another new leader due to Cunningham’s impending retirement, and whoever it is will struggle to keep up with the Dept. of Recreation, where Spaventa can fill two hands with the number of Athletic directors that he has seen in his time at UCSB. The continuity has allowed the Dept. of Recreation to continue to succeed and expand on its success, while at the same time controlling the majority of UCSB’s athletic facilities. Cunningham claims the arrangement hurts UCSB’s teams, but there’s no question that it helps the student body as a whole – the group to which Spaventa is in charge of catering to. In the end, it appears the whole issue comes down to a matter of perspective, leaving fans to decide for themselves which side they come down on.