Students at Ohio’s public universities pay more than $181 million to subsidize Division I athletics but if the state’s new chancellor of higher education has his way they won’t pay any new fees to support intercollegiate sports in the coming years.
Gov. Mike DeWine’s current two-year budget proposal would limit increases in general fees by 2 percent and would not permit public colleges to create any new fees, said Randy Gardner, chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education. The proposal, Gardner said, is very “student-focused” as it would increase need-based financial aid by $50 million over two years and would continue the state’s recent tradition of “significant tuition restraint.”
“The only way that a new fee for a college athletics program could be created is if a university came to the chancellor and requested one and I approved it,” Gardner said. “That’s not going to happen.”
It’s common for universities to contribute tens of millions to their sports budgets and some, such as Miami University, use student fees to help fund athletics.
With the exception of behemoths like Ohio State University, most D-1 athletics programs are not self-sustaining. Ohio’s other public colleges with top tier sports spend more than $98.6 million in student fees on their teams and $83.2 million of university or government support, according to the Knight Commission’s updated database of public college athletics financial information.
“There’s more money than ever being generated by college sports and with that reality comes an important question of where that money is going,” said Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “We think it’s really important.”
Wright State University spent $8.5 million from its general fund on its athletics program in 2017, making up about 79 percent of the department’s budget, according to the database. Wright State does not have a student fee that contributes directly to athletics.
Students at Miami paid $17.3 million in fees to athletics, making up around 46 percent of the school’s athletics budget in 2017, according to the Knight Commission. That’s on top of the $7.3 million the university already pays in institutional support to sports, according to the database.
Miami’s funding for athletics translates to around $1,000 per student a year, the data shows. Wright State, which doesn’t have a football team, spends just over $546 per student a year.
That level of school support isn’t uncommon though and the outcomes are often touted as why sports are a good investment, both experts and area college athletics directors said.
“I think everyone feels like athletics builds strong notoriety,” said David Sayler, Miami athletics director. “A lot of institutions view it as a resource and they’re willing to put some funds behind it.”
‘The front porch’
When college teams have successful seasons, they can provide a big boost to a school in terms of publicity, donations, enrollment and more.
Both Wright State and the University of Dayton have benefited in recent years from their basketball teams making the annual NCAA March Madness tournaments.
During conference tournament basketball play in early March, Wright State received “positive media” coverage of its teams equivalent to around $3 million in ad spending, said spokesman Seth Bauguess, who uses a tool to translate earned media into projected ad dollars.
“That’s always the hope,” said WSU athletics director Bob Grant. “I think there’s a definite correlation and with athletics as the front porch of the university…I think it’s extremely important.”
UD saw about a 10,000-person spike in inquiries from prospective students in 2015, just a year after the UD men’s basketball team made a run to the Elite Eight in 2014, officials have said. The success of past UD teams has also likely swayed some students who have been admitted to a few schools, Robert Durkle, dean of admissions and financial aid has said.
The kind of exposure athletics success can bring a college is hard to dispute, said Neil Sullivan, UD athletic director.
“We think it helps increase visibility to UD, can provide a richer student experience and can strengthen alumni and donor support,” Sullivan said.
Miami has seen success with its football and hockey teams garnering national rankings and attention. Even when teams have off years, they still perform in the classroom as student athletes often have higher grades than the rest of campus, athletic directors said.
Private colleges, such as UD, typically don’t provide wide public access to financial information for their athletics programs nor is it available in the Knight Foundation’s database.
But, information UD is required to file with the federal government does provide a window into its athletics revenue and expenses. UD’s athletics department spent more than $29 million in fiscal year 2018, according to data available through a U.S. Department of Education website.
The data does not specify the exact amount UD spends to subsidize its teams.
Around $10.8 million of revenue for UD’s athletics department is not generated by the school’s teams, according to federal data. That $10.8 million includes a subsidy from the school but may also include revenue from events hosted at UD Arena and donations, among other things, Sullivan said.
The data shows that UD’s athletics department may be more self-sufficient than any other area D-1 programs, something Sullivan said is a testament to the school’s supporters and fan-base.
“We are a highly self-sufficient athletics department,” he said. “Especially for an athletic department of our size and scope…Anyone that leads an enterprise should be eternally vigilant and worried about monetizing the future.”
UD’s men’s and women’s basketball teams are the department’s biggest revenue generators and expenses, federal data shows.
The men’s basketball team brought in around $14.2 million in FY 2018 and spent just over $7.25 million. The women’s basketball team generated $1.45 million and spent more than $3.5 million in the same time period, according to federal data.
Despite having D-1 basketball teams, UD does not have a top-tier football program. The school’s football team generated $81,477 last year and the school spent close to $1.2 million on it, data shows.
Schools like UD or Ohio State often have more lucrative sports teams because they receive more money through major TV contracts and higher ticket sales than other colleges, said David Ridpath, an OU associate professor of sports administration and previous president of The Drake Group, an organization focused on defending academic integrity in college sports.
“I don’t know why we should all be playing in the same sandbox as they are,” Ridpath said.
With affordability taking hold of the college spotlight, experts said athletic spending could soon face a reckoning.
College athletics programs have been locked in an arms race for years and recent increases in spending show that, said Richard Vedder, an OU economics professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
“As the burden of college funding grows, I think something’s going to have to give at some point and I don’t think sports is going to be exempt from that,” Vedder said.
Public universities without football teams increased athletics spending by an average of around 37 percent from 2012 to 2017, according to the foundation. In that same period Wright State, which has no football team, increased sports spending by about 25 percent.
Miami University’s athletic spending increased by around 30 percent from 2012 to 2017. That’s well above the median for football schools which saw expenses rise by about 6 percent but in-line with other schools in the Mid -American Conference, of which Miami is a member.
Although college sports have faced controversy countless times, issues of affordability may turn the funding debate on its head, Vedder said.
There may already be signs of a sports sea-change as colleges face looming issues of long-term fiscal sustainability.
Faced with the need to slash spending by around $53 million in 2017, Wright State cut its men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams. WSU also sought to slash athletics spending by around $200,000 in FY 2018. More recently, Miami announced it would reduce athletics funding by 10 percent over the next five years as part of a larger $17.3-million budget realignment.
Losing money on athletics, Ridpath said, has long been seen as “just the cost of doing business.” But, there appears to be a “big shift” underway that Ridpath said he hopes leads to serious changes for athletics funding.
“It’s really one of the few departments that can operate continually at a deficit…It’s kind of a sacred cow in a certain way,” Ridpath said. “Certainly, when you’re looking at cutting college costs, athletics should be on the table.”
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