Though the Bowdoin crew team is interested in transitioning to a varsity program, funding issues with the athletic department force them to remain a club team—operating in a grey area between the athletic department and the Office of Student Activities. 

The team has a roughly $1,000,000 endowment, coaches employed by the athletic department and a high rate of success against varsity teams. But despite the endowment and some funding from both the athletic department and the Student Activities Funding Committee, the team is still forced to fundraise around $100,000 a year to cover the operating costs of just  a club program. 

“To our understanding right now, the athletic department is interested in maintaining the program but not expanding it,” said women’s captain Sophie Bérubé ’16.

Pros and Cons

The crew team is quite successful competitively. The women won the Head of the Charles race in Boston in 2012, and Bowdoin boats have medaled the last six years at the Charles. Moreover, the team has won medals at the Dad Vail regatta, the largest intercollegiate regatta in the country, for seven consecutive years.

 While the club team is able to compete at a highly successful level, the athletic department does not see a reason to change the operational model.

 “Institutionally, we would have to review that model and decide if we want to head in the direction of a new model, which would be fully funded by athletics. Historically, the program has provided a great experience for students, so that hasn’t been something that we’ve considered” said Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan.

The coaches say there are some drawbacks becoming a varsity team. The program would have to be reconfigured to race primarily in eight-person boats. The team races mostly in four-person boats currently stored in a boat house five miles from campus. This boat house cannot accommodate storing such large boats, and would have to be reconstructed, which would be an expensive endeavor. 

Moreover, the coaches and captains have a certain degree of autonomy when it comes to choosing which races to participate in that they may not have as a varsity team.

“I just think there hasn’t been a high level of investment in moving it forward,” said head coach Gil Birney. “Part of that is that we’re the victims of our own success. We’ve done a really good job competition wise.”

 Though the team’s operational costs are not funded by the athletic department, the team is expected to abide by NCAA, NESCAC, and Bowdoin athletic department rules and regulations that can put a strain on the crew team’s funds when it comes to, for example, booking hotel rooms.

Moreover, all of the logistical duties—i.e. booking hotels and coordinating transportation to practice and races—fall on the coaches and team captains. Varsity programs, however, get this logistical support directly from the athletic department.

“Gil and I have had off and on conversations over a number of years,” said Ryan “I think it’s something people have often have wondered about but people haven’t sat down and said let’s make a final institutional decision on this.”  

A “hybrid program” of funding

“It’s an issue of funding. To be able to fund an additional varsity level sport would be a significant hit to the [athletic department] budget,” said Birney.

According to Ryan, the athletic department does not currently have the funds to support a varsity rowing program.

The rowing team and men’s rugby are the only teams with endowments; some varsity coaching positions are endowed, but no varsity team currently has an endowment.

Birney estimated that in order to sustain a fully endowed varsity rowing program, the team’s endowment would have to grow to $2,500,000. This figure would allow for the team to be self-sustaining in terms of operational costs. 

Until then, the team has to cover its operational costs with funding from the Student Activities Funding Committee (SAFC) and through aggressive fundraising. 

“We are really a kind of hybrid program in the athletics at Bowdoin,” said Birney. “We receive some funding from the athletic department but most of our funding is either from the SAFC or fundraising.”

Birney and assistant coach Doug Welling are employees of the athletic department. The funding support from athletics is used only to pay the majority part of the coaches’ salaries. However, fundraising is needed to pay part of the coaching salaries and to fund the majority of the team’s operational costs.

The rowing team’s operational budget for the 2015-2016 year is roughly $200,000, which is larger than the average Bowdoin varsity program budget. In the fall, the crew team requested $61,000 dollars from the SAFC; they were given $46,000. In the spring, the team asked for an additional $8,600; they received $600. This means that the coaches and team must fundraise the rest.  

 “We fundraise probably anywhere from $80,000 to $120,000 a year. And that comes from alumni and parents and friends of Bowdoin Rowing,” said Birney.   

 Relying on fundraising presents a risk for the team: it is not guaranteed that they will raise the money they need every year.

“Sometimes we don’t know if we will have enough money to go to certain races,” said Binenfeld.

“I think honestly if Clayton Rose or Dean Foster or somebody else came up and said ‘we think it’s time to start talking seriously about making rowing a varsity sport’ that the conversation would have a different urgency,” said Coach Birney.

Looking forward

“The natural trajectory of the team is towards a varsity sport. We operate as one, we compete as one, we compete with other varsity programs,” said men’s captain Greg Picarillo ’17.  

 Both Birney and Welling said they would like to see the program be elevated to the varsity level, as would many members of the team.

 “It’d be great,” said Coach Birney, “varsity level competition is terrific.”

“[Being varsity] would be great for the program in terms of general success and prestige,” said Arman Ashrafi ’17. 

Sophie Binenfeld ’17 echoed Ashrafi’s statement saying that varsity status “would give prominence to the program. It feels like we’re not taken as seriously sometimes.” 

If the endowment were to grow to $2,500,000, the athletic department would talk to the SAFC to see how the team may function as a varsity program. 

“If we decided that that was something we wanted to pursue, we would bring it to the Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster. If he thought that was something we wanted to pursue, we would bring that to President Rose and then we would ultimately make that institutional decision if [adding another varsity program] was something we wanted to do,” said Ryan.

Jono Gruber contributed to this report. 

3/2/16, 9:51 a.m.: This article previously stated that the coaches of the crew team were the only club team coaches employed by the athletic department. Other club teams do, in fact, have coaches employed by the athletic department. The article has been updated to correct this inaccuracy.