UC Riverside's athletic director Brian Wickstrom is now a Warhawk. His primary reason for leaving was that Louisiana-Monroe has a FBS football program. That makes perfect sense if one's trying to move on up the ladder, however you can't help but wonder if it's worth the near 90,000 dollar pay cut he could be taking.
While this is a great move for ULM, it can be considered as another setback to UCR. Wickstrom was hired in 2011 to build up the programs, increase the fan base and politic for a new on-campus multi-purpose arena. Here's what happened under his tenure:
- The arena idea is all but out the window, despite going through redesigns and relocations.
- The fan base has grown slightly, but not significantly to notice a difference. Students, from my own observations, are still apathetic to the teams.
- The infrastructure and the building of programs have been the biggest difference. That being said, the men's basketball team, which should be the school's largest money-maker, averaged a little over 755 people per home game (this can tie back in to "fan base").
The C-Center, UCR's proposed new arena, popped up in the news last May. It was originally estimated to seat 10,000, however that quickly cut down to a 5,000-6,000 capacity with a price tag of $70 - $90 million. The arena's proposed location as of late, has moved from a centrally located area on campus ( and removing old apartments and retail shops along with it), to a place "on campus," far away from everything and removing some potentially key agricultural land.
Along with the location issue, the C-Center's next biggest concern is how to be funded. So far, there are many different stories over the past year; ranging from federal work-grants to anonymous Chinese millionaires whose kids went to the school.
Finally, let's not forget that the final designs for the project have yet to be brought up and approved by the UC Board of Regents. In the midst all this confusion lies another distressing question: "How would we be able to fill 5,000 seats if not even 1,000 are coming to the games?"
The athletic department was and is trying very hard to increase constant support for UCR. The numbers, however don't lie: while the athletics association members have jumped from 350 to 900 from last year to this year, that's still an extremely small fraction of the local population; even with fantastic commercials like :
The commercial speaks for itself, especially Wickstrom's classic face palm. Under his watch, there were significant improvements to the playing conditions of nearly all the athletic programs. If you walked around on campus near the fields, something was always under construction, always getting better. The renovations to the infastructure and the slow rebuilding of programs will be Wickstrom's legacy, and why he was moderately successful in his short time at UCR, despite leaving the C-Center project in a doubting state.
The key reason for Wickstrom's tenure not being more successful, was the lack of growth within the fan base. UCR is located in a city of over 300,000 people; combine that with being the only Division I university in the Inland Empire, which caters to possibly 1.5 million people, and one wonders why there wasn't a more serious push on increasing numbers.
Then again, it's extremely hard to grow a fan base when you have losing records in all sports but one since the move up to Division I in 2001. The men's basketball team is abysmally bad, as they have a .334 winning percentage and only one season above .500 since the move.
Now that Wickstrom is off to ULM, a team in an arguably bigger conference (the Sun Belt) which has a FBS program on the rise (and lets not forget about being set in a city that is, quite literally, a college town), what does UCR's next athletic director need to do to be successful? How about building that fan base?
I personally see this being done in two ways: working with students to either increase attendance or eliminate apathy, and teaming up with a local television channel in the Inland Empire to start broadcasting the games regularly. It is that second part that is the more important for sustainability purposes. People can see what is going on, becoming aware of who the Highlanders are playing and know when bigger name teams are coming.
From there, the fandom seed can be sown, and hopefully start to sprout in the heart of Southern California's agricultural center.