Wiedmer: Subsidies new NCAA issue area

Wiedmer: Subsidies new NCAA issue area

June 29th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

"When are you going to drop football and distribute that money to those who deserve it?"

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga chancellor Dr. Roger Brown had been on the job less than hour when that question was asked of him at his opening news conference six years ago this summer.

So it was with more than passing interest that he read Tuesday's USA Today article detailing the growing controversy of using subsidies - especially student activity fees - to help balance struggling athletic department budgets.

After all, Brown went to the UTC student body this past spring and asked for an extra $60 a semester per student in activity fees to help the Mocs remain competitive in athletics. They obliged and the UT board approved the measure last week, and because of that the athletic department will have roughly $1.2 million more than a year ago.

At least it will until it returns close to $325,000 to the school's academic arm as a goodwill gesture.

But Brown has empathy for those who believe athletic departments aren't being asked to feel the same pain as the rest of academia during these tough economic times.

"I worry about it every day," he said. "While I deeply believe that the college experience is enhanced by organized athletics, at the same time I worry a lot about not having enough money to replace teachers we've lost in the downturn, or all those who've gone three years without raises. It's not a matter I take either lightly or coldly."

According to USA Today, subsidies are calculated using revenue categories from the school's NCAA financial reports: student fees, direct and indirect institution support and direct state support.

By those figures, subsidies accounted for 72 percent ($9,485,680) of UTC's 2010 revenue, up from 67 percent ($7,883,906) in 2006.

But to better understand the unevenness of the playing field, UT-Knoxville was among the highest users of subsidies among BCS schools, yet its $13.5 million in 2010 accounted for only 12 percent of its total revenue.

Texas, one of the nation's top athletic departments in both revenue and budget, took zero subsidies last year. Within the SEC, Alabama relied on subsidies for just 4 percent ($5 million) of its athletic budget, Georgia was also at 4 percent and Kentucky came in at 1 percent ($780,000).

"It's not just about athletics, though," Brown said. "We're a student body that's 92 percent in-state. A lot of our students who come here on athletic scholarships are from out of state and couldn't be here without those scholarships. Athletics gives our student body a diversity and balance it wouldn't have otherwise."

A case in point: When East Tennessee State dropped football at the close of the 2003 season, it was supposed to do wonders for the school financially. Instead, the loss of many minority students cost ETSU significant federal funding. It even lost music majors because there was no longer a need for a marching band.

So as expensive as college football is, the National Football Foundation says eight universities will field teams for the first time this year, with 17 more expected to begin play by 2014.

"Success in athletics just gives people a better feeling about your program, a great hometown pride," Brown said. "When Appalachian State was winning all those football titles, applications doubled on the academic side."

At Rutgers, however, subsidies are bringing nothing but public relations trouble. According to USA Today, New Jersey's state university has spent more than $115 million since 2006 to cover athletics spending. That's nearly twice the subsidy of the next highest school (Connecticut) among BCS conference members.

Yet it's trending upward everywhere. Subsidies reportedly account for $1 of every $3 spent on athletics at the Division I level. Only 22 Division I public school athletic departments generated enough money to cover expenses, most of those in the embarrassingly rich Southeastern Conference.

It's all become enough of a headache to force Patrick Nowlan, the executive director of the Rutgers teacher union, to tell USA Today: "A student doesn't come to Rutgers to attend a football game. They come here to get an education - and then maybe attend a football game."

And just like that, in that single observation, Rutgers could solve its problem if only it would begin to recruit more students from the South. Because down hee-uh, we go to college to attend football games and maybe get an education.

But maybe we should keep that little secret down home, Cuz.