Doug Robinson: There's a price to pay for playing in the big-time

Published: Tuesday, June 28 2011 8:47 p.m. MDT

The University of Utah is moving up to big-time college athletics, and fans of the school are going to have to open their pockets to compete.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

Editor's note: This is the 12th in an occasional series exploring the Utes' move to the Pac-12 Conference, which will take place Friday.

SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah and its football fans have been celebrating since it was announced a year ago that the Utes are joining the Pac-12 Conference. The move to the Pac-12 means more exposure, more prestige, more TV money, more BCS money and a more direct route to the BCS bowls.

But don't you wonder how they'll feel when the bill arrives?

Oops, nobody bothered to mention the price. It turns out that this Pac-12 move is like buying a car; when you go to close the deal, there are a lot of other fees nobody bothered to tell you about.

Don't you wish somebody had mentioned this when everyone was kicking the Pac-12 tires last summer? Somehow, they left that part out, or forgot about it in all the excitement.

All we heard was that this was the best news since Kyle Whittingham said yes to the Utes and no to the Cougars, and that membership in a BCS conference would bring new "revenue streams."

The Utes will eventually receive $20-25 million annually from a new TV contract, although it will be a few years (2014-15) before they are given a full share. It appears that a new Pac-12 TV network will become reality and bring in another $10 million or so someday. Then there is the money they will receive from the Bowl Championship Series that comes to BCS conference members.

It's as if they won the lottery, and now they're coming back with their hands out for more. In recent months Ute officials have made it clear that the step up to the big time will cost their supporters. Ticket prices have already been raised about 20 percent. Student fees will be next.

What happened to all those revenue streams? Can't they, you know, WAIT till the money comes in.

No. Ute officials think they need the money now to compete with their new rivals. They note that their budget of $32 million falls well short of other Pac-12 schools — except for Washington State (at $39M), the other 10 teams all have budgets of $50 million or more. They're pretty much taking the Patrick Ewing approach to the problem — BCS football teams make a lot of money, but they spend a lot of money, too.

Whittingham calls it an "all-out arms race." The race includes a $16 million football facility that's good enough to house an NFL team. "Everybody is building the bigger and better buildings, and we've got to keep up with everybody," the coach says. Athletic director Chris Hill says he hopes Ute fans understand the need for more money as the school steps up to another level, competing in a prestigious, nationally recognized conference.

Wait a minute; the Utes have been doing just fine with their current budget. That's why they were invited to join the Pac-10 in the first place. They've got a winning record against Pac-10 teams in the last decade. They've won two BCS bowls in two tries, by landslides. They've produced two unbeaten seasons and two top-four finishes. They've become a regular member of the top 25. Since 2003, they are 7-3 against Pac-10 teams. They have beaten Texas A&M, Michigan, Alabama, Pitt (twice), and UCLA.

They did this while receiving only $1.2 million from their conference TV contract. They'll double that next year and within a few years, if it reaches the $25 million that some predict, it would increase nearly 2,000 — TWO THOUSAND — percent.

Well, no one can fault the Utes if they raise ticket prices and fans still buy them and fill the stadium. But using student fees — never mind raising them — to cover the cost of running a big-time football program is another matter.

Does the average engineering student or theater arts major care about the football team? Does the kid who's working nights to pay for tuition and overpriced textbooks want to pay for an NFL farm team?

It's not just the Utes. It's all of college football. Division I universities have lost their way in the rush to cash in on football and win national attention. These days, big universities have become football corporations with a school attached, not vice versa.

With the increased emphasis on athletics, more schools are subsidizing their programs with student fees and government allocations. In 2010, USA Today reported that more than half of the athletic departments at public schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision were subsidized the previous year by at least 26 percent the previous year, up from 20 percent in 2005. Some students pay as much as $1,000 a year to cover athletics.

According to research by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, NCAA data shows that the median subsidies to balance athletic budgets rose 25 percent from 2008, to more than $10 million in 2009. Football is considered a cash cow and yet nearly 43 percent of the NCAA's 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision schools did not cover their own expenses and reported operating losses, with a median loss of $2.7 million.

How misguided has it gotten? Between 2005 and 2008, the Journal-Constitution reported that athletic spending among those 120 universities that play football grew at a rate of 38 percent, while academic spending grew only 21 percent.

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which consists of university presidents, trustees and former college athletes, recommended that collegiate athletics be scaled back, including a reduction in scholarships for football.

It might be time to re-evaluate the purpose of universities and their athletic programs. Meanwhile, the University of Utah — like most other Division I schools — is eagerly pursing a growing, full-scale football business.

Email: drob@desnews.com

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