Game on: What happens if colleges can’t rely on student fees to fund athletics anymore?

moneyThe dirty little secret of college athletics is that they don’t pay for themselves, even football and men’s basketball, and that any athletics department budget is balanced on the backs of kids who don’t play college sports, may not attend any games and have to borrow money and work part-time jobs for the privilege.

They’re called student fees, they’re mandatory, and without them, it wouldn’t be possible for your favorite teams to play on Saturdays in the fall and the rest of the sports year.

Virginia House Republican Majority Leader Kirk Cox is introducing legislation for the 2015 General Assembly session that will strike at the heart of the fees, putting a cap on how much revenue colleges and universities in the Commonwealth can collect from student fees, with a five-year phase-in to allow athletics departments to find new sources of revenues to account for what they’d lose from the reductions in student fees.

“In Virginia, only about 3 percent of college students will play intercollegiate athletics. But mandatory student fees account for, on average, 69 percent of athletic program expenditures,” Cox said. “In other words, we are asking non-athletes and their parents to cover two-thirds of the cost of college sports. In my view, we simply cannot ask students who will never play a minute of college sports to bear such a disproportionate share of the costs associated with these programs.”

The percentage of athletic department revenues ranges from the ridiculous (88 percent of the sports budget at Radford and 80 percent of the sports budget at JMU come from student fees) to the sublime (student fees account for 15 percent of the athletics budget at UVA and 10 percent of the athletics budget at Virginia Tech, both of which, like many schools in the state and across the country, would nonetheless operate in the red without the infusion from student fees).

This at a time when the average cost of a four-year degree has increased 28 percent since 2008. According to the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, student fees that go toward athletics expenditures cost on average $1,185 per year per Virginia college or university student.

That figure is up 49 percent over what the average Virginia college or university student paid in student fees in the 2006-2007 school year.

Which is all well and good to point out. The increased burden of student fees on kids and their parents is clearly out of control, but when you notice the line item in the JLARC report that has 69 percent of the athletics budgets at colleges and universities in Virginia being supported by student fees, it’s clear that student fees are not going anywhere, right?

Ideally, these fees would go completely away, and athletics departments would have to sink or swim based on ticket and merchandise sales, conference affiliations, broadcast fees, sponsors and private donors, but if that policy were adopted today, everybody but UVA and Virginia Tech would cease playing above the club level tomorrow, if not later today.

Even Cox’s legislation wouldn’t go as far as to prohibit schools from assessing the fees at all, but the cap idea that he is pushing will put immense pressure on those schools not in the ACC to seriously reassess their priorities. The five-year phase-in gives a little time to ramp up efforts in marketing and donor giving, but you have to presume for sake of budgeting that ticket sales at best remain flat, so absent dramatic improvements in obtaining sponsors and new donors, athletics departments are going to have to think through what sports programs they’re going to have to cut.

For some, the easy one to cut is the most expensive: football, which has the most players, the most coaches and support staff, the biggest recruiting and travel budgets. According to the JLARC report, only two football programs in Virginia make money, at UVA and Virginia Tech. So if you’re an alum or otherwise attached to another school, be forewarned.

Football being the prestige program for those athletics departments that field a football team, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see any football programs scrapped, which means the so-called non-revenue sports move up to the front of the chopping block, as happens often when times get tight for athletics decision-makers. And if you’re a male athlete in one of these non-revenues, at a school that offers football, consider yourself on notice, because you’re at the head of the front of the line.

The other thing we can guarantee will happen this winter in Richmond is that lobbyists in the employ of colleges and universities here in Virginia will be working the halls of the State Capitol like coaches at an AAU tournament or elite summer camp. It will be a good bit easier to water down the legislation and the caps that it might impose, if not outright killing the effort altogether, than it would be to try to find more money from sponsors and donors.

Game on, indeed.

– Column by Chris Graham

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