By Darren Martin
College athletics programs are arguably one of the greatest pillars of the collegiate experience. The recruiting process is a battle of its own and serves as a certain brand war for the colleges—where talent, skill and the certain amount of luck could simultaneously fund their institutions’ ventures and egos. However, for smaller institutions or losing programs, funding is a crippling asset to the institution and the maintenance, and sometimes livelihood, of the program falls on the responsibility of the student through their yearly student fees.
Sports are the backbone of colleges, but evidence shows that many programs are suffering. According to Dr. David Welch Suggs, only eight athletic programs “broke even or had net operating income on athletics each year from 2005-2009, according to data provided by USA Today to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.” The eight programs were: UGA, Louisiana State University, The Pennsylvania State University, and the universities of Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas at Austin. These institutions, and institutions within other elite conferences, such as the Southeastern Conference and the Big 10, can rely on TV contracts, gift/apparel revenue, ticket sales, royalties and much more to sustain without needing full institutional support.
However, for the other institutions, student fees, at the will of the institutions’ administration, subsidize their sports programs. Essentially, a general fee will be added to the student fee of the student’s account. Typical student fee allocations include: recreation, student organization budgets, technology and more.
There has been an ongoing debate throughout the years on whether these subsidies are necessary—and frankly, ethical. Students can see an up hike in student fees based on the needs of the sports programs, and sometimes are largely shut out of the conversation of subsidies. According to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, “in 2008 at California State University, students voted against an increase from $7 to $50 per semester; the university president overrode that result and upped the fee to subsidize athletics to $32 per semester.” This action of force shows a strong need for colleges to fund their programs through student subsidies—sometimes for survival, sometimes for greed.
Helping the Small College
While the California State University case illustrates the landscape of importance that subsidies have on colleges, not all college students are fighting the funding measure. The Knight Commission also records, “at Utah State University, about 53 percent of students voting approved a 100 percent increase from $113 to $243 annually to help lift the university’s athletics department out of debt.”
This peculiar form of crowd sourcing is little known to the public, but happens at many small colleges. Rustin Dodd, sports writer at the Kansas City, asserts that “football revenue is scarce and universities and student fees are largely responsible for keeping athletic departments afloat.” For smaller institutions who do not benefit from ticket sales or have a high student-engagement rate, college budgets are just too tight to be generous. The programs are not bringing in enough revenue for the college to invest more money than needed for operations—and sometimes less than that.
This discussion even furthers at HBCUs. In 2013, Beverly Daniel Tatum, President of Spelman College, introduced the Spelman Wellness Revolution, a bold new program focused on enforcing healthy eating and living campus wide. Part of that new program ended the athletic program—a program that was $900,000 of the college’s $100 million operating budgeting in 2012-2013. Spelman is one of the few colleges who have not publicly reported using student fees to subsidize sports—those fees are given to the institution’s SGA to disseminate throughout the year. However, their self-recognition—that as a small college, competitive sports were becoming more of a strain than a structure—propelled them into a lucrative, innovative space that will surely impact the entire student body and not only 80-100 student athletes.
In contrast, their neighboring institution, Morehouse College, believes in the spirit and necessity of competitive sports has reported using a small percentage of their student fees to fund athletic programs. This funding has kept the college’s athletic programs intact when there was a holistic financial burden on the institution. With new leadership, more funding from the institution itself has been pledged to make Morehouse a competitive athletics program—like its competition in and outside of their conference.
However, stories of small institutions and their funding woes are not the large focus on student subsidies. Larger schools and conferences, like the Big 10, are known for making high profit while still raking in money from their institution’s student fees.
The Giants Eat
According to Dodds, “five of eight athletic departments in the Big 12 received more than a million dollars in student fee subsidies in 2012-2013, and seven of 13 in the SEC received more than $1 million.” Institutions in this conference receive an easy revenue of $90 million (like Kansas University) or more from their big contracts, but still use the money from students to fund their programs.
This is a large problem, not necessarily for the stability of the institutions, but for what it means to the culture of the student body. Could this $1 million in subsidies be disbursed to a large amount of financially suffering student activity boards? Yes. In largely disproportional subsidy-to-revenue cases, who suffers, the athlete or the student?
In a small college setting—the athlete: even the subsidies created to fund their program will not match what larger colleges can offer, which can lead to a tumultuous relationship between need and access to that need. In contrast, in a larger college setting—the student: the money taken away from the student begins to be utilized for more recreational relief than operational necessity.
So where is the balance? Should colleges use subsidies? Why? Why Not? Those questions are being asked in legislation chambers and boardrooms alike. However, some believe its about knowing what is best for the college and the program—a decision ultimately for the college’s administration.
Ron Thomas, Director of the Journalism and Sports Program at Morehouse College and multi-decade sports journalism professional, suggests, “Athletics – both on the varsity and intramural level – are an important, usually healthy part of collegiate culture that should be funded by the college. But institutions must question if there is a proper balance between funding for varsity sports and non-varsity sports that service a much larger number of students; funding for varsity sports and academics that service all students; the athletic program’s academic priorities and those of the entire institution.”
While the decision of if athletics services all students is left primarily up to the administration and success (or necessity) of the college programs, it would be remiss to deny the unprecedented acts of student action that has changed the minds of the administration and in sometimes, the history of their college and its checkbook.
This story originally appeared in the February issue of Out of Bounds.