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

Published: Tuesday, July 27 2010 12:28 a.m. MDT

He said the school's analysis of whether to cut sports found that the financial impact would be a net loss since many students would go elsewhere. Instead, Beazer said the athletics program hired a marketing firm to seek corporate sponsorships in outside markets.

In 2008-09, football at SUU lost $441,000, men's basketball ran a deficit of almost $80,000 and all other sports lost just over $1 million combined. The school covered expenses with nearly $4.4 million in institutional support, and student fees provided $605,000, or 8 percent of total revenue. Those fees were raised in 2008 to $96 per year.

At Utah State, the increase in spending on sports was driven by joining the Western Athletic Conference five years ago. Athletic director Scott Barnes said the conference asked USU to grow, and the school responded with a plan to boost external revenue, state funding and student fees. However, the slow economy limited the first two options.

USU students narrowly passed a referendum in spring 2009 to increase their own student fees, bringing in an additional $2 million annually to the athletics department, which had run a deficit for years. The program was $848,000 in the red in 2008-09, the last year for which numbers are widely available.

Meanwhile, faculty and staff were required to take a five-day furlough over spring break to help cover a midyear budget cut.

Jeremy Winn, then the vice president for athletics in the student government, went all over campus to make presentations in support of the referendum. He said it was a big step for USU to join the WAC, and students didn't want to see the school fall behind.

"A great athletics program can also turn around and make your degree look better," Winn said.

Officials at the U. are optimistic that joining the Pac-10 will enhance the school's academic profile, already bolstered in recent years by the growth of its health sciences programs and genetics professor Mario R. Capecchi winning the Nobel Prize in medicine.

Still, Brinkman said if he could build the structure of intercollegiate athletics from scratch, he would "probably try to design it a little differently, so we're not competing with each other so hard and driving up salaries beyond what seems reasonable."

But there will be pressure on the U. to keep up. In 2008-09, the average athletic budget in the Pac-10 was almost $60 million, with USC coming in over $80 million. The U.'s was just above $31 million.

Brinkman said that even when times are good, colleges in Utah are used to working with tight budgets. "We do get by for less."

The CCAP study found that the Mountain West Conference and the WAC were among the most heavily subsidized in the country at $1,117 and $718 per student respectively in 2008-09, although the MWC figure was skewed upward by the Air Force Academy spending $4,292 per student. The U. was near the low end at $335 per student, while USU spent $750.

SLCC was the only state school to reduce its sports subsidy in the past five years. Other state schools in minor conferences have seen theirs grow: 28 percent at Weber State University, 38 percent at the College of Eastern Utah.

At Snow College, athletic director Kevin White didn't have to search far for the most recent cut to his program: himself. Following pay reductions to the volleyball and softball coaches, and unwilling to slash teams, White this month lowered the salary for his own position. His last day is Aug. 31.

"I would have loved to stay in athletics," said White, a Snow alumnus. "It was a really tough decision."

At private Westminster College, spending on athletics has more than doubled since 2003, though the school did not release precise figures. The college will add track next year, bringing it up to 17 intercollegiate sports teams. Officials there said student-athletes outperform other students academically, and that with a "collaborative budgeting process," athletics spending "has not become a hot issue."

BYU athletics are entirely self-supporting, which means that any money spent must be generated through corporate sponsors, radio and television contracts, ticket sales, private donations or money from the conference, said Duff Tittle, associate athletic director. No tithing funds from BYU's owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are used.

Despite the economic downturn, Tittle said they've been raising money long enough that the entire process is fairly stable.

"We may have to work a little bit harder, we may have to find a few more people, but we've been very fortunate to keep the program where it is, and even moving forward during these times," he said. "We're always going to be very careful with what we do with our money."

Contributing: Sara Israelsen-Hartley

e-mail: pkoepp@desnews.com

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