Does every college in Utah need NCAA athletics?

by Dan Burton and Shon Harris


Does every Utah institution of higher education need NCAA sports?

Let us put that differently: should students and taxpayers be subsidizing NCAA sports in Utah to the tune of $56M or could that money be prioritized for other needs, such as lowering student costs and fees?

Does every college in Utah need NCAA athletics?
The Tower at Rice-Eccles Stadium

A couple weeks ago (or more, but we’re slow, okay?) the Utah State Auditor’s office released an analysis of subsidization of the NCAA by Utah, and it had all the impact of a bird pooping on the shiny glass of the Tower at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

In Utah, where the Tea Party rose to prominence to unseat Senator Bob Bennett after he subsidized Wall Street with federal dollars to prevent national economic collapse,  we subsidize NCAA sports programs that operate in the red to the tune of between $1,165 per student at Southern Utah University to $99 a student at Salt Lake Community College (what’s with that disparity? Maybe SLCC needs to hire SUU’s lobbyists? Some colleges are more equal than other colleges?).

While we’re worrying about the cost of federal programs on the next generation, maybe we should also be looking at the cost of college athletics to students. Students taking out loans today, that are helping to subsidize NCAA sports, will stay with them for the next thirty years, hurting spending power, earning opportunities, and job choice.

This is a state where a disproportionate percentage of the population is under the age of 18, almost 90 percent of high school grads plan on attending college, and yet only a quarter of adults over 25 have a college degree. While that’s a relatively high number of college grads, the discrepancy between the 90 percent that want a degree and the approximately 25% who actually earn one should have us looking at where people go wrong. With the cost of tuition rising faster than tuition, maybe we should take a hard look at what colleges and universities are doing with the money the state sends them.

Does every college in Utah need NCAA athletics?
InflationData.com

And yet, almost no one complained when Dougall’s office pointed out that NCAA sports programs at every public college or university in Utah are extravagantly subsidized by the moms and dads and students paying for college.

Does every college in Utah need NCAA athletics?
SUU NCAA sports are subsidized at a rate of over $1,100 per student. In a town known for the Shakespeare Festival, not for football, it begs the question: why is money going for sports instead of the performing arts?

Even the press seemed to deliver a “meh” to the report. The Salt Lake Tribune assigned a sports reporter to cover the analysis. I guess if Robert Gehrke can cover music, then sports can cover fiscal analysis, right? Next up, Peggy Fletcher Stack covers the stock market…

Athletics programs have long been regarded as “The Front Door” to a university, with exposure (read: revenue) and other intangibles that could theoretically be beneficial to the school.

The fact is, though, that these programs are a business. They are expensive to run and expensive to operate. Combine that with the fact that day-to-day operations aren’t as sexy as when a school is sanctioned for breaking NCAA rules or that student athletes aren’t compensated for their talents, beyond tuition and housing expenses.

Instead of discussing free community college, maybe we should be talking about how much cheaper a degree would be if students and parents weren’t subsidizing expensive NCAA sports programs in which most students do not participate. Instead of enriching the top, maybe we should be returning the money to students.

Heck, let’s just put it to a vote on college campuses: all in favor reducing tuition in the amount you are subsidizing NCAA sports, raise your hand.

Here’s how much each Utah students and taxpayers are subsidizing NCAA sports at Utah school:

  • University of Utah: $334.33
  • Utah State University: $708.62 (not including the $1.5M the Utah Legislature sent the school’s football program last session for no good reason whatsoever)
  • Weber State: $614.86
  • Utah Valley: $488.82
  • Southern Utah University: $1,164.90 (Why does SUU even have a sports program? Why not focus on, I don’t know, performing arts, instead?)
  • Dixie State: $602.39
  • Salt Lake Community College: $98.97
  • Snow College: $403.27

The University of Utah is a unique case here in how much money the school gained by joining the Pac-12 athletic conference while still subsidizing NCAA sports. In fiscal year 2014,  the University of Utah received $16.1M from the Pac-12’s media contract. In fiscal year 2015, Utah becomes a “full member” of the Pac-12 and is on track to receive a minimum of 22.0 million dollars.  And yet, this is the same school that charges every student $334.33 to subsidize athletics,regardless of whether the student does anything affiliated with NCAA programs.

That’s unfair.

Does every college in Utah need NCAA athletics?
Rice-Eccles Stadium, August 28, 2014. Photo by Shon Harris.

Look, we don’t hate sports.  Quite the contrary.  One of us forks out at least $2,500 a year to University of Utah Athletics for membership in the Crimson Club (“Wait, what?! You do? Are you nuts?” “Go Utes.”). But this isn’t about how we feel about athletic competition. Rather, it’s about requiring those least able to bear the cost to subsidize those who play and those who watch. Athletics should be funded by ticket sales, media contracts, advertising, and donors, not students looking to earn a degree. Funded by student loans, students have little control over where their tuition is spent and few alternatives to Utah’s state schools, but colleges and universities seem to have no problem increasing costs as students’ access to education financing grows.

The Utah State Auditor’s analysis of NCAA subsidies should be a conversation starter for the Utah Legislature and university and college presidents across the state. To ignore it is to ignore the increasing cost of getting started, of earning a degree, and the long time required to pay off burdensome student loans.


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