A committee of Wright State’s board of trustees reviewing the school’s athletics department offerings and costs is the latest effort in a debate over how public colleges should pay for inter-collegiate athletics.
Wright State University spent about $10 million from tuition and public funds for its inter-collegiate athletic programs in 2019-2020, according to data from the NCAA. For fall 2019 enrollment of 12,392 main campus students, according to state data, that works out to about $800 per student.
Other Ohio schools also pay millions on sports, according to one national report. Miami University’s subsidy for athletics is $27.2 million; the University of Cincinnati subsidy is $29.7 million.
“The students who are paying these sky-high tuition fees often do not know how much they are indirectly subsidizing to sports,” said Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University. “You could argue that’s a moral issue.”
Rodney Fort, a sports economist at the University of Michigan, said there is a real value in the advertising sports brings to a university, but schools must keep the costs in line with the size of the school. A better athletics program brings in more students, which helps colleges be more selective in choosing their students and attract better faculty, he said.
“It’s no accident, right, that Big 10 schools, for example, are not just really good sports schools but really good schools in general,” Fort said.
Fort said the memories around college sports can encourage donations from alumni.
He said a better question is whether an athletic budget is too large relative to what a university ought to be doing. But if athletics wasn’t a good investment, universities “wouldn’t invest in it in the first place,” he said.
Credit: JIM NOELKER
Credit: JIM NOELKER
Wright State University trustees this month launched a review of the school’s inter-collegiate athletics programs. They say the review is needed in the wake of changes brought by the COVID-19 pandemic to colleges across the country. At the committee’s first meeting on March 8, members said they want to better understand how the institution works with its athletics department and how athletes contribute to the school.
Marty Grunder, a Wright State trustee who is leading the review committee, said the changes forced by COVID-19 restrictions this year give the school a unique chance to assess the role sports play in the university’s student experience.
“Certainly, this disruption has given us an opportunity to look at the environment today and see if there are any hidden opportunities that Wright State University could take advantage of,” Grunder said this month.
Wright State is not the only local college considering what to do with athletics. Sinclair Community College announced last week it would suspend its athletics program and review whether to eliminate sports at the community college. A report on the question is due in February 2022.
Last month, Wright State University President Susan Edwards recommended eliminating up to 113 faculty positions over the next several years. The recommendation came as the university has seen a nearly 40% decline in main campus student enrollment since 2010, dropping from 18,354 students in fall 2010 to 11,090 students in fall 2020, according to state data.
Wright State spokesman Seth Bauguess said staff reductions and expenditures on athletics are not related. He added that the university’s “financial health continues to be stable and steady.”
Some faculty members have advocated for several years that the university look at cuts to the athletics programs.
Noeleen McIlvenna, a professor of American History and president of the faculty union, points to a 2014 study commissioned by Wright State that examined the university’s brand. It found current and prospective students were motivated by Wright State’s affordability, easy to navigate campus, opportunities to participate in research and other academic factors — not the sports program.
“I’m not sure why the different WSU administrations, who have had these data for five or six years, continue supporting athletics at the scale they do,” McIlvenna said. She added: “As I have said before, faculty don’t hate athletics, but many don’t understand why it continues to get $9-10 million every year, while the teaching units are experiencing such deep cuts.”
In 2018, 254 faculty members signed a letter criticizing the university’s support for athletics while trustees then considered staff and teaching layoffs.
But college sports help the local economy, said Christopher E. Kershner, president & CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Wright State athletics is not only a part of our economy, it’s part of the fabric of our athletic community. It provides a sense of community pride and supports our local economy and the hospitality industry,” Kershner said.
Wright State said the athletics department serves as a “front porch” for the university, exposing many student athletes to the campus.
“The exposure the university gets from athletics enhances the school’s brand recognition, making a degree more marketable beyond just the Dayton area,” Bauguess said in a statement. “Athletics acts as a major connection point between donors and other areas of the university. Individuals identified in our donor management system as men’s basketball season ticket holders have given $57 million to Wright State, much of that going to support students outside of athletics.”
Wright State has 194 student-athletes this year competing on 11 teams.
The university’s athletics program ran a deficit for 13 of 16 years between 2005 and 2019, according to a review of athletic department budgets nationwide by USA Today. In 2019, the athletics budget was $12.4 million. About $1.9 million in revenue came from ticket sales, donations and licensing revenues.
Wright State says the $10 million used to augment athletic department revenue comes from two main sources: $5.7 million is “net direct institutional support” and $4.3 million comes from the tuition and state aid received by the enrollment of the university athletes themselves. Because of that, the university considers its per-student subsidy to average out to $500.
“I’m a little surprised that Wright hasn’t done something drastic in the sports area,” Vedder said. “And the most drastic thing they could do is get out of the business completely. But there might be some compromise, going to a Division III kind of sport, and maybe Wright should be thinking about that.”
A report issued by a fact-finder in 2018 as part of union negotiations between the university and the faculty union concluded it would not save the school money to move its teams from NCAA’s Division I to Division II.
Gabi Redden, a member of the women’s basketball team and a Student Athlete Advisory Committee representative, said she wouldn’t have been aware of Wright State University if it wasn’t for basketball. She said she was looking for a “winning culture” and found it in Wright State.
“Women’s basketball, since that’s the experience that I have here, does carry a benefit to Wright State,” she said.
She added basketball, “allows us all to come together in an inclusive environment.”
The women’s basketball team plays Monday in the first round of the Women’s NCAA basketball tournament.
Sydney McGilton, a third-year mechanical engineering student, said she is very involved with club and intramural sports and works for the university fitness center. She was elected to be president of the club softball team for next year. But college sports was not something she considered when she decided to attend Wright State, she said.
“I believe college is a place to prepare for your future career,” she said. “Wright State’s connections to Wright Patterson Air Force Base and companies like UES, Inc. were significant factors I considered when selecting Wright State. Their affordable tuition and highly rated engineering programs were also driving factors for me.”
In June 2020, the university announced it would eliminate men’s and women’s tennis and softball.
Ohio State University is among a handful of college athletics programs nationwide that are self-sustaining. Although Ohio State athletics expects to run a deficit this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, typically, the program turns a profit, almost entirely due to revenues from its football program.
That is not the case with other public universities in Ohio. According to data assembled by USA Today, subsidizing college athletics with university funds and or student fees is common place. For example, $27.2 million of the $39.6 million athletics program at Miami University comes from university subsidies and student fees; $29.7 million of the $68.8 million University of Cincinnati spends on athletics comes from university funds; and Bowling Green State University students fees cover $12.9 million and university funds cover $2.7 million of the $26 million athletics budget.
“We continue to hear that universities should operate more like businesses, but I don’t know of any business that would look at an arm that is losing $10 million each year and think that the status quo is sustainable or acceptable. I also don’t know of any business that would cut the employees who generate their revenue and profit; at universities that is the faculty,” said Sara Kilpatrick, executive director of the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors.
She added: ”If alumni and others want to see sports continued, they can do so through private donations. But the time has passed for universities to plug their athletic deficits by taking money from the academic side of the institution -- money that is funded by student tuition and fees, as well as taxpayer dollars.”
Contact Eileen McClory at 937-694-2016 or email@example.com.