A Historic Gift to Women’s College Sports
Philanthropists Paul and Betty Mayer recently endowed the women’s basketball head coach position at the University of Vermont.
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On February 1, the University of Vermont (UVM) announced the endowment of the women’s basketball head coach position, thanks to a generous gift from longtime donors Paul and Betty Mayer. The size of the gift was not specified, but the school reported that it was the largest ever to a women’s athletics program at UVM. With this endowment, UVM became only the seventh school nationwide to have an endowed women’s basketball coach, joining Cornell, Dartmouth, Drake, Miami (FL), Notre Dame, and Stanford.
UVM athletic director Jeff Schulman told Her Hoop Stats, “It's really a historic gift for not only UVM Athletics, but I think our conference and to some extent nationally as well. … It will absolutely have a significant impact on our program and help us to ensure that we have the resources necessary to compete at the highest level in our conference and among the best mid-major programs in the country.”
Schulman explained that the gift provides the women’s basketball program with “a permanent source of incremental funding” that can be used on whatever head coach Alisa Kresge and the athletic department choose each year. For instance, it may supplement the program’s recruiting budget one year and help pay for travel or equipment upgrades the following year. As Paul Mayer put it, “This gives [Kresge] a big tool in the toolbox to do what she needs to do.” The Mayers hope that this tool helps Kresge return the program to national prominence and to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.
The Mayers’ involvement with UVM began in the 1980s, a few years after Paul, a doctor, began teaching medicine at the university. They started out as men’s hockey fans but have since expanded to men’s and women’s basketball. “Our interest in women’s basketball began by sheer happenstance,” Paul Mayer recalled at a private ceremony* announcing the gift, “when we literally ran into the Tennessee Vols and Pat [Summitt in] the Burlington Airport” in 1996. Summitt’s team was in town to play UVM, and although UVM would lose by 29 points, “the bug had bitten and we were hooked.”
The Mayers’ admiration for the women’s basketball team grew over the next twenty-plus years, especially when then-head coach Lori Gear McBride began having players mingle with fans after games about a decade ago. During McBride’s tenure, the Mayers built relationships with all of the players and began donating to the program. In 2016, Betty Mayer was having health problems but attended games whenever she was able. Paul Mayer was “truly moved” by how the UVM women’s basketball team supported his wife, calling their support “the ‘penicillin’ that facilitated Betty’s recovery and made us consider how we could [further] give back to this program.”
The Mayers’ decision to support an endowed head coaching position was a way to thank and invest in the players they had watched for several years, and it was also motivated by broader issues of parity and gender equity. “We thought that there should be parity,” Mayer said, citing Summitt, U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, and former UVM hockey player Amanda Pelkey as important champions for equity in sports. “By doing this, we now have an endowed men's coach and we have an endowed women's head coach and that gives them equal financial footing.”
This gift to UVM comes during a period of surging donations to women’s sports, especially by women. Traditionally, “‘women’s programs tend to get crumbs,’” Inside Philanthropy’s David Callahan told The New York Times last December. But, according to NYT reporter Jeré Longman, the tide is turning:
“As the 50th anniversary of Title IX approaches, the pioneering athletes who first benefited from the 1972 federal gender-equity law are now in their 50s or 60s, and some of them have gained sizable wealth as more women have entered the executive suite. They have created a subset of university giving, donating millions back to their alma maters.”
Longman cited several examples of female philanthropists, including Karen Robinson Keyes, who donated $5 million (with her husband) to endow the women’s basketball head coach position at Notre Dame. Another is Carol Roberts, the lead donor for Yale’s new field house for female athletes. Roberts was initially reluctant to have the building named after her but eventually changed her mind. “‘We had to give it a name so they wouldn’t think some guy did it,’” Roberts quipped.
Schulman corroborated this trend, telling Her Hoop Stats, “There's no question that more and more people are inspired by the amazing things that are happening in women's college athletics and … inspired in a way that makes them want to contribute.” He added that private gifts like the Mayers’, coupled with institutional investment, can help eliminate long-standing inequities between men's and women's programs.
Schulman met with the UVM players before the Mayers’ gift was announced to explain what it was and how rare endowed positions are in women’s basketball. “One of the things that I really tried to emphasize to them was that they were the ones that really were responsible for this gift,” Schulman said. “… It wasn't my relationship [with the Mayers] that was the impetus for this gift. It was the relationship that they have with our players … and with our coaches.” He added, “I think [the players]—rightly so—took a great deal of pride in that.”
Along with the clear financial impact of the Mayers’ gift, the endowed position is also important symbolically. Schulman explained, “It sends a really important message out to women athletes and coaches of women's teams and to other prospective donors about these two philanthropists and their commitment to supporting a women’s team.” It may even inspire others to donate to the program, just as the Mayers themselves were inspired by donors such as Meghan and Rob Cioffi, who endowed UVM’s men’s basketball head coach position in 2015, and Malcolm LeVanway, who funded renovations to the women’s locker rooms.
Whether or not those ripple effects materialize, the Mayers’ endowment of the women’s head coach position sets UVM apart from nearly every other school in the country. “It's a really powerful statement,” Schulman said, “and it certainly is going to have a significant and lasting impact on our program.”
*A copy of Paul Mayer’s remarks was provided by UVM Athletics. To our knowledge, the full remarks are not available online.