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Q and A: The man in charge of sports on The Bluff discusses challenges and opportunities as he starts his 11th year.

COURTESY PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - Scott Leykam is beginning his 11th academic year as the leader of athletics at the University of Portland.Scott Leykam's 11th academic year in charge of athletics at the University of Portland just might be his busiest yet. In addition to overseeing 16 varsity sports, as well as intermural and recreational sports on campus of the Catholic university in north Portland, Leykam is the chairman of the NCAA Women's Soccer Tournament Selection Committee.

The Chiles Center, along with Moda Center and Veterans Memorial Coliseum, is one of the sites for the PK85 college basketball tournament, a 16-team event that will bring many of college hoops elite programs to the Rose City Nov. 24-27. Also, the University of Portland is the host school for Portland's bid to host a women's basketball Final Four at Moda Center. The city is one of seven finalists in the 2027-31 bid cycle, with sites expected to be announced in November.

Leykam recently talked with the Tribune about challenges and opportunities ahead for college athletics, and for the Pilots. The discussion was edited for clarity and brevity.

TRIB: What keeps you up at night?

LEYKAM: "Where Division I athletics is going, it keeps you up at night. I feel like with our model and the fact that we're in a league with schools that are like us helps. I worry about the size of Division I. How do the Power Five fit in Division I? How do other schools that are kind of hanging on fit in Division I? From a WCC perspective, we're one of the top (mid-major) basketball leagues, so we feel good about what we are, but we're all at times wary for what lies ahead."

TRIB: What are the big challenges in the immediate future at UP?

LEYKAM: "To continue to build the basketball program. That's been a challenge that goes back several decades and several athletic directors. I'm excited that our men won 19 games and our women won 20 games last year, but I know we're only as good as the next season. I feel we're well positioned.

"I do worry about the transfer portal and the movement of student athletes. I think that if you have a good program culture and the right system and coaches in place, most student athletes will stay. I struggle with the fact that when I got into this business, you got to know the student athletes much better. When somebody came to the campus, the odds were that they were going to stay around for four years and you would get to know mom and dad and a lot about them and their family. In some ways, roster management now is as much like professional sports as it is college sports. But I think we've done a nice job leveraging our campus and our city and our conference. We're going to be picked to finish in the top half of the WCC and men's and women's basketball next year.

"The economy worries me. When you look at what travel costs and what gas costs, it makes me sometimes wish we were on the East Coast. We are one of those few schools where all nine trips for us in the conference mean getting on an airplane and staying in a hotel. Food's getting more expensive, travel's getting more expensive. We'll figure it out, but we're going to have to make some changes."

TRIB: When teams have success the way your basketball program did last season, do you worry about losing coaches?

LEYKAM: "Coach retention is something I think about every day. You don't want to lose your coaches. I'm really proud of the 11 coaches we have and the impact we've had on the conference. We have donors and benefactors who are starting to have conversations with us about what it looks like to retain the people we want to retain.

"People have called about a lot of our head coaches. We just lost our top baseball assistant (Jake Valentine) to Washington State. It's the reality of the situation when your teams win, people are going to call. But it also means we're doing things the right way. I think we're in a position to retain our coaches. Worst case scenario, I think that folks know we're serious about competing and winning and doing it the right way, and where people want be here."

TRIB: How has name, image, likeness (NIL) impacted Portland Athletics?

LEYKAM: "Last July we had two or three dozen student athletes who came in and had some sort of an NIL deal. Most of them were trade. A lot of them were self-entrepreneurs that went out and found the opportunities on their own. As this goes to year two and year three and year four, it's going to become a bigger game. We are exploring what a collective would look like and what the positives and negatives are. The reality is, in some sports you're going to need to have something for your student athletes in order to retain them. We're realistic about where we fit in that collective world, but I think in this community there may be an opportunity for our student athletes. We see it not only as a chance to give the student athletes the rights they should have, but it's also a great opportunity for them to learn taxable income and a lot of those business skills that they're going to need once they leave this place."

"We've had extended conversations with our business school about how we can work together to talk to athletes about personal finances. What's a good deal? What's a bad deal? How you build your brand on social media. Not only can they make a little money or make some product, but it's going to help them in the long term."

TRIB: You've mentioned the importance of basketball. Talk about your vision for the program? Other than when the Gonzaga men play here, as they will next season, how do you sell more tickets?

LEYKAM: "Attendance post-COVID, I think everybody in Oregon and southwest Washington will tell you we haven't completely figured it out. I think we started to see some nice blips in men's and women's basketball at the end of the season and winning definitely helped. I've taken on a much larger role in scheduling. It took me a while to figure out that when we play plays a huge role (in attendance). We have a better chance of drawing fans from Vancouver on Thursday night and a better chance of drawing people from the south on Saturday because of traffic patterns.

"This year we have Stanford coming in for women's basketball. We have Washington State coming here for women's basketball, plus Gonzaga and BYU (women's basketball). On the men's side, we've made more of a concerted effort to play Friday, Saturday nights when we can get the youth basketball groups here. Should we televise the Saturday game? Or does that keep people at home? I think hosting PK85 will help move the needle.

"The year before COVID, we had our best basketball revenue year in history. Last year was nowhere near that."

COURTESY PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - SCOTT LEYKAMTRIB: How big of a challenge is scheduling?

LEYKAM: "Scheduling men's basketball this year has been an incredibly humbling experience. The previous couple of years, people did not want to play us because our RPI and our NET was seen as hurting other teams' numbers. This year, folks at schools we really would like to play were honest and said, 'You pose a risk.' I'm glad I scheduled as much as I did before January. Once we had that hot finish at the end of the year, nobody was returning my scheduling calls (laughs). The University of Oregon has been great. We didn't play them my first eight years here and this will be the third year in a row where we're driving down to Eugene. I still want to play as many regional teams as we can."

TRIB: What improvements are planned for the Chiles Center, which opened in 1984?

LEYKAM: "The focus is more on the in-arena experience. We still have work to do back of house, but since I've been here we've touched the training room, the weight room, the locker rooms. We've built an academic center, built two donor spaces. We've built coaches offices. This year, the two major projects are replacing the seats, which were original to the building. We got to the point where when a seat broke there was no longer anywhere to find a replacement. We'll have new (yes, still purple) seating on both sidelines in place by the end of July. And that was a significant seven-figure project that benefits all the events that are in our building. The other one is the sound system, which was also original to the building. We are looking at digital signage boards on the side as part of PK85. I don't know if we'll get there. We are working on the concession experience. When people walk in the building, we need to do a better job of making sure they get the right experience."

TRIB: In recent years, you've done significant projects, including Joe Etzel Field and developing facilities for rowing, soccer and track on the Franz River Campus along the Willamette to the northwest and 135 feet below the campus on The Bluff. What else is happening?

LEYKAM: "There were some things we still wanted to do on the concourse at the baseball facility, which has exceeded all expectations for us. It has been a big reason that that we've improved on the field and finishing the top half of the WCC the last two years. We're looking at potentially moving our baseball locker room over from Chiles to Etzel in the next couple of years. We are looking at some changes to the fields around (soccer stadium) Merlo to see what we could do to improve those for our soccer programs and intramural and club. Work on the track is scheduled to start in the spring. We're still doing some land planning work. But if you go down there and look hard enough, you can see where the track is going to be. We're just making sure the soil is where we need it to be. The big one that's going to happen soon is the boathouse. We're cautiously optimistic that the headwater dock is going to go in in July and August. The boathouse is a beautiful facility right there on the river and then the is going track next to it."

TRIB: Talk about some of the partnerships you've developed.

LEYKAM: "I'm really proud that we brought the OSAA (basketball tournaments) back here. We're talking to the OSAA about other events. We're hosting more at Joe Etzel Field than we ever have. We have NBA teams over at Beauchamp (Recreation and Wellness Center) all the time. We have MLS and NWSL teams down below (on the river campus soccer training fields) all the time. I love that we can partner with the Blazers on hosting PK85 and be a part of the women's basketball Final Four bid."

TRIB: What are the concerns expressed by donors? What are their dreams?

LEYKAM: "I think the ultimate dream is to make the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. I think a lot of our fans want to see women's basketball get to play in the NCAA tournament (COVID canceled the 2020 tournament after the Pilot women qualified). See men's and women's soccer continue to grow. We have 16 programs and we had 10 that qualified for some sort of postseason this year.

"What scares doners is: What will the industry look like and where does Portland fit? And they want to make sure that we retain our values and who we say we are. We had a 93% graduation rate this year. The next cohort, it looks like we will be 98%. As much as folks want to win, they want to make sure we're doing it within our values."

TRIB: We're chatting on the day USC and UCLA announced they are leaving the Pac-12 in 2024 to join the Big Ten. What does that say about the state of college athletics?

LEYKAM: "The reality is that those schools still depend on us to play games. In COVID, we played everybody in the Pacific Northwest again, more than we ever have. They need us and we need them.

"I do worry — and we don't depend on this as much as some — but there are a lot of schools in our division that are incredibly dependent on the money they receive from Power 5 schools for guarantee games. How will that fit in all of this?

"I'm the chair of the NCAA Women's Soccer Selection Committee this year. I'm really focused on scholarship limits and on access to championships. At least now — and I anticipate there will be some changes — it is an even playing field. We have 13 men's basketball scholarships and Oregon has 13. We have 14 women's soccer scholarships and Washington has 14. That's the one thing that's bound us, and I hope those numbers stay the same, or stay similar, to keep competition equal.

"The other thing that concerns me, both as a committee chair and an AD, is access to championships. One thing I love about the NCAA championships is every conference gets a spot. I think it adds originality and it gives every student athlete in every conference the dream of playing in the NCAA championship."

TRIB: What does the trend toward super conferences mean for the WCC and Portland?

LEYKAM: "I don't think you can say for certain that anything will or won't happen, anymore. I didn't have UCLA and USC moving on my bingo card. The nice thing for us is we are in one of the top 10 conferences in the country. We have great leadership, and we have good partners. Where this business goes in 15-20 years? Who knows? I know it's come a long way in the last 15-20 years and we're all still here."

TRIB: What is your opinion about the effort to split the college soccer season into fall and spring halves?

LEYKAM: "For the men, I imagine we'll vote on it next year. But that move is not imminent. The women, at this point I think there's ways to expand the schedule in the fall without adding the spring. Let's start a week earlier in August. And let's play the College Cup a week later. That way, you're stretching 19 games over 14 or 15 weeks. And I think having two days off in between matches has helped. I respect what the men are trying to do with the spring. My only concern is how that fits with the MLS drafts. I would not want to get in a position where our best player is drafted and leaves us right before the NCAA Tournament."

TRIB: Thoughts about the impact of the transfer portal, especially in basketball where some rosters completely turn over at some programs?

LEYKAM: "We're very blessed that all of our key rotation players in both men's and women's basketball have stayed here. And they made a commitment to this program because they believe in where we're going."

TRIB: Any other developments on the radar of athletic directors?

LEYKAM: "The evolution of NIL and how it affects the recruiting marketplace is something that we're all watching, specifically how that fits within the NCAA rules. The other thing that I think most athletic directors see out of the corner of their eye is at some point — whether this be Power 5 or otherwise — are student athletes considered employees? There was that discussion at Northwestern a few years ago and as the game continues to change at the higher level, that conversation is going to continue to happen. Do I know where we fit in this? No, I don't. But I do feel that conversation is going to come back around."

TRIB: Portland celebrated 50 years of Title IX by highlighting female athletes in special online content. What does Title IX mean to you?

LEYKAM: "The 50th anniversary of Title IX has been fun for us with our women's soccer lineage, with Megan Rapinoe and Christine Sinclair and Tiffeny Milbrett, and with what we've done in women's cross country over the years and our history and women's basketball, both past and present. It was neat for us to get the chance to celebrate that. It's one thing that I like about this job and this school and this conference. We embrace and are proud of women's sports. I'm a girl-dad. I have a daughter who plays sports. It's an honor to be a chair of a women's sports committee."


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