A common misconception holds that Division I sports are a cash cow for universities. In fact, only 20 Football Bowl Subdivision programs – no Idaho school among them – generate more revenue than expenses for their athletic departments, according to a recent NCAA report. The vast majority of universities grapple with a fundamental question: What is the appropriate level of institutional spending on athletics?
At each state university, the Idaho State Board of Education sets a “cap” on general education funds that can be spent on athletics. With modest inflation adjustments, these caps have been in place for more than 20 years. Programs in deficit – spending general education funds above the cap – have two years for remedy and repayment. Last year, U of I asked for and received a one-year waiver to spend above our cap. This April, the $1 million deficit still at issue, we received another waiver.
How did we get here? The deficit predates the most visible change in Vandal athletics: our transition from FBS to FCS football and the Big Sky Conference to join our other sports. This shortfall is basically structural. We received a multimillion-dollar payout when the Western Athletic Conference dropped football after 2012; that one-time money helped balance the athletics budget for several years and has since been depleted. Absent continued influxes of one-time money, and in a small market, revenue for Vandal athletics has not kept pace with expenses.
Without the board’s flexibility, the university would have faced the immediate elimination of women’s soccer, men’s golf and swimming and diving – three sports not required by the Big Sky Conference. Each of these sports is a point of pride for the Vandals – our uniquely indoor women’s soccer program, our competitive swimming and diving program, and a men’s golf program well-aligned with the only PGA Golf Management Program in the Northwest. I’m happy the policy waiver forestalls their elimination.
U of I is not seeking unlimited spending. We’re interested in considering a more holistic approach that accounts for overall institutional revenue generated by athletics, not just departmental expenses. Essentially, student-athletes choose a university based on the opportunity to compete there. Lose the sport, lose the enrollment, lose the tuition revenue – to say nothing of lost opportunities for students, many from Idaho. In this broader view of revenue, adding low-cost, high-interest sports such as rifle, men’s swimming and women’s triathlon, alongside thoughtful cost controls, can improve the bottom line for athletics and the institution.
We have a lot to be excited about in Moscow. The upcoming football season in the Big Sky Conference includes compelling regional matchups against the likes of the Montana Grizzlies, Montana State Bobcats and Eastern Washington Eagles. Just as exciting for our basketball teams, the Idaho Central Credit Union Arena project continues to gain fundraising momentum. Our alumni should know their contributions make meaningful impacts in the effort to control our own destiny.
This unequal landscape of higher-education athletics will continue to grow. A recent report suggested the Power 5 conferences generated $6 billion in 2015 revenue, three times Group of 5 conference revenue. That said, U of I is not escaping budget challenges in the Big Sky Conference. We have our work cut out for us as we collaborate with the State Board on an approach that serves our student-athletes and our institution.
But we are going to face our future, as much as possible, on our own terms. Operating within responsible fiscal limits, I believe we can create an athletics program that competes for championships, provides abundant opportunities for participation and unites our Vandal community. A program that is, in two words, brave and bold.
Chuck Staben is president of the University of Idaho.