University Tennis Center deemed unusable for Division I teams due to poor condition

Mens' MAC Championship moved due to the state of disorder

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Fences are breaking at the foundation. Paint is peeling off the ground and every court has cracks. The fences have holes, the gates don’t lock and the surfacing is a trip hazard. All of this is occurring at UB’s “world-class tennis facility.”

The result: the men’s tennis team will not be able to host the Mid-American Conference Championship at UB, despite earning the right to do so by winning its respective MAC season title last year.

The University Tennis Center, next to the Ellicott Complex, is unusable, although UB resurfaced the courts this past summer. The Spectrum asked Athletics how much the resurfacing cost, who oversaw it and when, but Associate Athletic Director for Broadcasting and Communications Dan Enser said the department had “no comment.” The Spectrum sent a Freedom of Information request on Sunday to get specifics concerning dates, cost and fees pertaining to the situation.

Associate AD of Event/Facility Operations Sue Kurowski and Assistant Director for Student Employee Development Karen Mayfield refused to comment and referred any questioning to Senior Associate AD for Sports Administration Kathy Twist. Twist did not respond in time for print.

Each of the 13 courts has cracks or a hazard large enough to make playing on them so dangerous that Athletics hasn’t let Division I teams practice or play on the courts since last October. Club teams, however, continue to use the courts, with 30 UB students playing there each week.

“Those courts need to be condemned,” said Director of Outdoor Pursuits Russell Crispell, the former UB men’s and women’s head tennis coach, who worked for the teams from 1982 to 2006. “I can surmise that they don’t want the [Division I] athletes to get hurt, so is this not a potential risk for the general public?”

The summer resurfacing was meant to fix the cracks, but it didn’t work.

Now, neither the winning men’s nor winning women’s team can use the courts. The women's team is coming off winning its first MAC Season Title in program history this past Friday.

UB Athletics refused to talk to The Spectrum about the courts, but the university’s website says the complex is “host to some of the best Division I tennis action in the Northeast.”

“I have personally resurfaced courts before, and it is going to take a complete re-milling and relaying of asphalt to make them usable,” Crispell said. “Even still, those courts are absolutely outstanding in terms of the infrastructure, so getting rid of them like the Alumni courts would be terrible.”

The courts near Alumni Arena were torn down in October to make space for the $18 million Murchie Family Fieldhouse.

Crispell said the overall price to return the courts to NCAA conditions would cost “upwards [of] tens of thousands of dollars.”

“They seemed to have gone with a quick fix,” Crispell said. “That quick fix did not work and I know that facilities had the company come back to attempt to mediate those fixes, which did not work as well. It left depressions in the asphalt and sections of the patched material peeling up.”

Homeless champions

This season, both Division I teams have played at the Miller Tennis Center in Williamsville, located 15 minutes from UB’s North Campus. The center was named the Private Tennis Facility of the Year in 2018 by the Professional Tennis Registry. The teams have been playing at the eight-court facility since the 2016-2017 season.

Athletics rents the facility for both teams’ practices, meets and promotional events –– a year-round expenditure that used to only be paid for in the winter. Athletics declined to comment about how much it cost them to rent the facility this season. The men’s team will play at the center this year for the MAC Championships, which begins Friday. If the weather conditions are not poor, the event must be held outside, according to the MAC Championship regulation. Athletics has not announced where the games will be played if they are unable to use the Miller Tennis Center.

The Spectrum attempted to speak to players on both teams for comment, but none came forward out of fear of upsetting Athletics or losing their scholarships.

Men’s and women’s tennis teams had a combined budget of $967,441 in 2017. In contrast, football –– a male-only sport –– had a budget of $7.8 million, while the men’s and women’s basketball teams had a combined budget of $3.7 million. The men’s tennis team had the lowest individual team budget of $400,723 in 2017. Athletics had an overall budget of $35.9 million.

“It is sad when the courts that are supposed to be used by the Division I teams aren’t even up to the Division I standard,” said Aces Tennis Club President Anthony Podgorsak.

Podgorsak said the courts’ conditions hurt the club, as it makes it “impossible” to give members an excellent tennis experience. The Aces, a Student Association club, is the only team at UB currently using the courts.

Both the men’s and women’s Division I teams are currently over .500, with the women’s team on a 12-game win streak.

“We are growing Division I tennis programs in spite of the fact that these coaches are not given the tools to maintain long-term success,” Crispell said. “Division I tennis is not just fall and spring, it is a year-round sport. Unfortunately, we only have a few indoor facilities in the area, and the cost for [Athletics] to rent them is high.”

Newly hired Athletic Director Mark Alnutt said he learned about the courts when he arrived at his first UB press conference on March 21 and is looking into ways to fix it.

“I want to work with university leadership to make sure those are properly functioning again,” Alnutt said. “I want to explore opportunities beyond just the courts for our tennis program. We have strong tennis here and that is something I want to keep.”

Alnutt said he would look into possible new facilities but did not specify any plans or type of facility. Alnutt also stressed expanding fan participation.

Student participation at tennis events was low to begin with, according to Senior Director of Marketing for Athletics Elaine Russell. Russell said with the added distance to the Miller Center, it will be even less likely for students to attend matches –– even the upcoming MAC Championship. At the women’s tennis game last Friday, there were roughly 100 fans. No ticket is required to attend.

“We could try to set up buses,” Russell said. “But what happens when no students want to take a bus to just see a tennis match? Even if students know we have … shuttles set up, is it worth the cost when we only expect a few or no students to show?”

More than cracks

The courts were built in 1993 to be used in the World University Games held at UB that year. Both the complex and UB Stadium were built to accommodate the games. Crispell said the complex is supposed to be world-class, as the games were meant to be a major undertaking.

“A part of our deal was that the World Games would pay to renovate the courts,” Crispell said. “They were gorgeous when we were done with them. We hosted a world-class tournament there. Right after that, I was named head coach and those courts remained in great shape until I retired in 2006.”

Now, there are cracks on every court in the complex. Crispell said the cracks formed from a lack of routine maintenance. Had the university resurfaced the courts every five years, the cracks would have never gotten to this point, Crispell said.

Podgorsak described the courts as “sketchy.” The Aces recently began using the courts again, something Crispell feels is an issue.

“If those [Division I] students can’t, then why would you have nets up?” Crispell said.

The university put nets back up last week at the request of the Aces. Before that, no nets had been put on the courts due to weather.

The fences surrounding the courts have structural damage and are on the verge of collapsing, according to Crispell. He said the wind protectors for the fences were not installed correctly. Instead of putting them on the outside perimeter, they were installed on the inside. The extra pressure put on the fences led to structural issues over time. Athletics would not comment on who put up the protectors or when.

“It is pretty bad to look at the fence,” Podgorsak said. “We are not provided a key to get in. Though I tell everyone not to do it, there are still people who climb over the fences. It puts unnecessary pressure on the courts themselves and is a big risk for injury.”

Podgorsak said last semester the fences were not in such bad shape but are now a hazard due to the weathered foundation. Crispell said it would cost thousands of dollars to fix the fences. The fences also have large holes along the perimeter.

Podgorsak said it is possible to physically “peel off” the paint on the court. In patched sections, the paint is a different shade of blue as the rest of the courts. The patched material has a different consistency than the rest of the courts, which makes it easy to slip when playing at high speed.

“If someone is sliding and they catch one of those peels, that could be a broken ankle,” Podgorsak said.

The club has yet to have an injury this season but started spring play last week.

The Aces have over 100 members and 30 weekly participants, according to Podgorsak. He said the courts aren’t an issue for beginner players, but it becomes a risk when the level of play picks up. The complex holds the only tennis courts on campus, making it the Aces’ only choice.

When Podgorsak returned to the courts in late August for the start of the season, he described them as “perfect.” Less than two months later, he would take that statement back.

“Once the weather picked [up] with the rain and snow, that was when it started to go,” Podgorsak said. “In Buffalo, outdoor courts are a gamble. If they are not done perfectly right, you are going to start having these problems quickly.”

Podgorsak said he doesn’t believe the company that did the patches ever came back to fix the issues, as the courts “have only gotten worse over time.” To Podgorsak, the courts were better before the patch job happened when compared to its current condition. Before, the fences were not in such bad shape, the court was a consistent surface and not peeling.

Podgorsak said that not having to plan around a Division I schedule was the only advantage.

Hope for improved facilities

Crispell said the university should take “a serious look at bringing in an indoor tennis center” in order to “maintain long-term success” for the tennis programs.

“The center would not just benefit the needs of the athletes but the needs of faculty and staff,” Crispell said. “A multi-purpose facility would serve the entire UB population.”

Crispell pointed to other schools in the MAC as already having such facilities. Both Ball State University and Western Michigan University have indoor facilities on or next to their campuses. The men’s tennis team played four Ivy League schools this season. Ivy League schools have multi-million-dollar tennis facilities, as they are the NCAA’s premier tennis conference.

Crispell said regularly planned maintenance is the only way to make sure the current situation at UB doesn’t happen again. During Crispell’s time as coach, he made it a priority to make sure maintenance happened for the courts every five years.

Crispell doesn’t think the coaches are to blame, though. He insists both have had remarkable success, while dealing with such adverse circumstances. Athletics, he said, put off maintenance long enough for the courts to end up in a “disastrous state.”

Men’s tennis head coach Lee Nickell and women’s tennis head coach Kristen Maines both declined to comment.

“I am not surprised that the courts ended up like this,” Podgorsak said. “It happens nationwide, but definitely here at Buffalo. Tennis just isn’t funded. I really don’t see the school trying anything beyond a patch job to really fix it.”

Crispell and Podgorsak said a moisture guard would be a more proactive solution. The guard would help the courts deal with the Buffalo weather and help reduce the severity of damages.

Both agreed that another patch job would not be the answer to fixing the problems. Athletics has not announced any plans to restore the courts this season.

Correction: The original article stated the women's tennis team would be hosting the 2018 MAC Championship. The 2017 MAC Season Champions, the Ball State Cardinals will be hosting the event.

Thomas Zafonte is the senior sports editor and can be reached at thomas.zafonte@ubspectrum.com and @Thomas_Spectrum