Tax bill creates sleepless nights for colleges across America

The tangled tax bill signed by President Donald Trump has created a growing group of suit-and-tie insomniacs on college campuses.

Count San Diego State Athletic Director John David Wicker as one.

The bill erases an 80 percent deduction for donations tied to premium seat purchases. Forbes reported that in the 2015-16 fiscal year, those donors accounted for 25 percent of overall revenue at Kansas and 27 percent at Louisville.

Oklahoma uncorked a hastily-crafted "Pay it Forward" pitch to its deep-pockets supporters, enticing them to write checks for multiple seasons before year's end to take advantage of the deduction's waning days.

At Alabama, it might mean the new football lockers go from mahogany to maple. At San Diego State, in the direst scenario, it could cripple fund-raising projects or spark the erosion of scholarships in non-revenue sports.

"I'm definitely concerned, I won't lie," Wicker said. "It keeps me up at night as we try to keep people interested in San Diego State athletics and funding our scholarships. A big part of that has been tied to tickets."

Wicker said the university's annual scholarship bill currently is more than $9 million, with about $6 million of that coming from contributions to the Aztec Club. Much of the total, he said, is donations toward tickets.

Some say boo-hoo to college money-makers who traffic in enormous profits. That isn't San Diego State. They don't park 70,000 in SDCCU Stadium. They don't have Phil Knight bank-rolling more uniform set changes than Madonna. They don't bathe in TV deal dollars like Scrooge McDuck.

Wicker estimated that ticket-relation donations account for about 10 percent of the Aztecs' overall revenue.

At a place with almost no financial margin for error, this could hurt. A lot.

Duke's Kevin White told ESPN's Darren Rovell: "I don't think the politicians have any idea how much this will pull apart our system."

Imagine how that feels at a place like San Diego State, without the money-making power of Longhorn football or Blue Devil basketball. Consider what that could mean as the Aztecs lobby their base to support the Mission Valley stadium plan with financing that feels, based on what we know now, a tad squishy at best.

"Any dollar figure that we lose, potentially, is a problem," Wicker said.

In the Big 12, Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said each and every one of his conference's athletic directors expressed concern about the tax bill's looming storm cloud.

The bill also includes a 21 percent excise tax on any of a university's top five employees who make $1 million or more. According to USA Today, that means that Nick Saban's contract will cost Alabama "at least $1.2 million" above and beyond the more than $7.1 million they're paying him annually.

No one is certain how creative athletic departments will become and how unforgiving the IRS interpretations will be. You're likely to see some places crafting contracts with base salaries at $975,000 or so — just under the tax threshold — and tinkering with other ways to funnel money toward blue-chip coaches.

The lone certainty: The tax man will be watching.

So right now, there are more questions than answers. Those answers are likely to keep those folks responsible for campus bottom lines burning the midnight oil.

"If you want make an assumption around an Armageddon scenario, where it was absolutely as bad as it could be, it would have a very meaningful and profound effect on athletics programs," Bowlsby told the Union-Tribune.

"Whether or not it gets to that level remains to be seen."

The Aztecs don't live in the world of $1 million coaches. The ticket-donation shift, though, is more than enough of a reason for gray hair to sprout.

"It's obviously creating a lot of confusion across a lot of different areas," Wicker said. "We just need figure out what that looks like moving forward."

Richard Collins, a plumbing contractor who lives downtown, donates for prime seats directly behind the SDSU basketball team's bench. The impact of the tax bill on his future ticket-buying decisions?

"None," Collins said.

Just as quickly, he acknowledged that his situation is different.

"Well, not these seats," he said at Thursday's Gonzaga game, before gesturing toward the row behind him. "Maybe those seats, I might blink."

And that's the thing. Some of the Richard Collins crowd will pay whatever it costs for the best seats in the house. The people sitting in those rows right behind him, well, that's the wait-and-see of it.

"Part of the problem is, I don't think athletic directors have much insight as to what their donors' tax situation is," Bowlsby said. "For all intents and purposes, if you don't itemize your deductions, this doesn't make any difference to you at all. If you do itemize, it may change how you structure your payments and things.

"I think probably the biggest thing will be corporations that have used suite purchases as entertainment expenses.

"The concerns are well-founded. I just think it's early to know just exactly how it will impact people's giving habits."

For the Aztecs, it likely will hinge on winning.

If the basketball team starts climbing back into NCAA Tournaments, the demand for seats will climb as well. If they flounder in the Mountain West and spend more time in the NIT, it could be NI-Trouble.

"We're going to sit down with some tax professionals and see what it truly means," Wicker said.

Sleep is important, after all.

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