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John Blanchette: Washington State’s plan for balanced athletics budget uses mental gymnastics

In the world of NCAA sports, Washington State is to fiscal gymnastics what Alabama is to football.

If only they handed out national championships for that sort of thing.

The Cougars, in the persons of WSU athletic director Patrick Chun and chief university budget officer Joan King, were back on the balance-sheet beam Thursday, doing splits and flippy dismounts as a warmup for the show they must put on for the school’s board of regents next week laying out what athletics is going to do about That Darned Deficit.

Which looks to reach $68.1 million – a cumulative figure – by the end of fiscal year 2018 here in a month, and $85.1 million by 2022.

Well, forget that for a minute. Wazzu certainly has.

The immediate strategy is simply to have one year’s revenue match or exceed expenses, something the Cougar accountants believe can occur by 2023. You know, a five-year plan, like the basketball coach gets. Every year.

Maybe Chun will have more success with it than Ernie Kent.

This is coming to a head now because the Legislature last March hammered out a law demanding deficit-reduction plans from any universities with athletic departments in the red. Also mandated: that those plans and financial statements from the previous three years be “conspicuously” posted, an ironic nod to transparency by the same lawmakers who tried to board up their windows by gutting the Public Records Act.

Anyway, there was some forthright talk from Chun on Thursday about it being time to “take fiscal responsibility.” Which, in college athletics always means finding more money – yours, usually – and never less in the way of expense.

Some of the hows were fascinating. For instance, in five years there’s to be a $3 million bump in ticket sales over the current $8.5 million – a mere 35 percent. Most of this, Chun allowed, will have to come at the turnstiles of Beasley Coliseum, given that football is doing near-capacity business, regardless of what you might have read in that audit which was in the news.

Now, men’s basketball attendance hasn’t topped 3,200 a game in five years and the women, well, you can hear whispered conversations from the bleachers across the court. But Chun did hire a women’s coach – Kamie Ethridge – with some cachet, Kent has been out emptying junior colleges and, what the heck, there’s no price tag on unsubstantiated optimism.

What else? Oh, the Cougs want to double their income from – wait for it – student fees. Because nothing says fiscal responsibility like adults with money management issues panhandling 19-year-olds already sliding into student loan debt. Two recent tries in that direction went nowhere. Yet Chun, just four months into his gig, senses “nothing but a clear love for Washington State athletics” from his student interactions.

OK then.

In the meantime, Chun will continue to exercise the fundraising skills that earned him the job. Donations are up 25 percent, though surely some of that was in motion prior to his arrival. The budget plan calls for a 30 percent increase to 2023 and selling off some naming rights – has reported negotiations with Darigold – would be a nice accelerant.

It’s one thing to keep making those calls as part of doing business. When the potential donor knows you’re 68 mil in the hole, the transaction might be easier if it’s clear that you’re making some sacrifices, too.

Except there’s no indication in WSU’s projected expenses of any such thing, other than miniscule drops in guarantees – one less stiff on the basketball schedule – and equipment. Coaching salaries? They’ll be going up 25 percent. Administration? Going up, too.

Chun continually talks of the “world-class experience” Wazzu intends to provide its athletes and that, as the lowest budgeted public school in the Power 5 conferences, the Cougars are already doing more with less.

In the crazy-stupid context of college athletics, true. This is true, too: A deficit that will reach $85 million, no matter what the reason, says you’re living beyond your means.

But that’s athletics – the front porch of the university. Never mind that no one in America can run a household like this. The repo man doesn’t bring back your car when you miss this many payments.

On the upside, if expenses stay flat and the Cougars’ revenue trends as projected, that debt could be repaid by 2029. Oh, except they’re counting on a few years after 2023 to build up department reserves. And expenses never stay flat. Travel and tuition go up. There’s always a facility shopping list and surely the football coach will need another salary bump to show he’s loved.

As the new guy, Chun can only come up with a plan and try to make it work. But his future calls – on rollover contracts and raises and staff proliferation and facilities – need to reflect sanity and not just world-class sloganeering.