Utah colleges spending more on sports, even as state education funding drops

Published: Tuesday, July 27 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

McCarthy Family Track & Field Complex is under construction at University of Utah as the U. gears up to join Pac-10.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It's all about keeping up with the Joneses. Cal Jones. Stanford Jones. USC Jones.

As the University of Utah gears up to join the Pac-10, officials hope increased revenues will offset the costs of competing. But while financial shootouts are most visible between major-conference schools, spending on sports is a perennial issue to varying degrees at all of Utah's public colleges.

Indeed, a national debate is heating up in higher education over the balance between funding for athletics and academics. However, Utah's colleges are largely on the sidelines, with officials expressing little enthusiasm for cutting athletics programs even as their overall budgets saw a 12.5 percent decrease in state funding last year.

And in most cases, they say it hasn't been much of an issue on campus, even as athletics spending has grown: from $12.8 million at Utah State University in 2006-07 to $17.8 million just two years later, and from $5.7 million to $7.2 million at Southern Utah University in that same period.

"It comes up every year in the regular budget cycle," said Paul Brinkman, vice president for budget and analysis at the U. "It hasn't really been a hot item. There's been no knock-down, drag-out struggle over it."

Brinkman said he hopes the U. doesn't get "caught up in the extraordinary levels of funding" seen at other schools in the Pac-10.

In a report released last month, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics recommended greater transparency nationwide in athletic budgets compared to academic spending, making academic values more of a priority and treating college athletes as students first. The report also suggested making public more information about borrowing and capital spending for facilities, such as the U.'s new track and the potential expansion of its football stadium.

The commission said the inexorable rise in sports spending creates "a financial arms race" that "threatens the continued viability of athletics programs and the integrity of our universities." It noted that athletics funding in the Football Bowl Subdivision now outpaces academic spending 6 to 1, growing by 38 percent in the last five years while the latter rose only 20 percent.

Costs are an even greater burden on smaller schools that often have to travel farther to play conference games on a shoestring budget. A recent report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity argued that athletics programs impose a "regressive tax" on smaller schools and their students, while Football Bowl Subdivision schools are only "trivially impacted."

The report looked at the "subsidy" for athletics, or the portion of sports budgets generated outside the programs through student fees, state funding and the school's general fund. That amount ranges from $83 per student at Salt Lake Community College to $1,117 at SUU.

Dorian Page, vice president for finance and facilities at SUU, said the high tab stems from the school's desire to broaden student involvement in athletics. University sports provide entertainment to the Cedar City area, although in return, the region offers few potential donors compared to the Wasatch Front, he said.

"There's a lot of debate over whether to concentrate on certain sports or not. We recognize we may be a little bit at the high end (of per-student funding)," Page said, adding there has been discussion of cutting some sports. "Certainly, if the economy doesn't improve, there will be more cuts, and then we may have to make some hard decisions."

Like many college officials, SUU athletic director Ken Beazer sees sports as a boon to the campus, albeit one whose cost has to be carefully weighed.

"I look at it as what we're providing the university. We bring in recognition and publicity," Beazer said. "I believe we fit in very well with the university's mission statement."

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