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

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."

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