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Shawn Vestal: Crisis puts brighter spotlight on sports spending at WSU, EWU

The faculty at Washington State University is trying to conduct a very modest, very gentle intervention with the school’s drunk uncle – asking the administration not to expand its subsidy to the deficit-spending athletics department by another few million dollars per year.

See if you can guess what kind of answer it received.

University President Kirk Schulz responded this week in a letter thanking them for their “careful and thoughtful deliberation,” extolling at great length the ways in which he, Schulz, has expanded and amplified the “faculty voice” – and rejecting, without explanation, their request that he not seek to add $2-3 million in annual subsidies to athletics.

This at a time when the university’s academic departments have made cuts of 10% or more and as the school faces huge financial pressures from the pandemic.

Now the Faculty Senate has taken its request to the Board of Regents, asking it to reject Schulz’s proposal.

“Diversion of these funds will significantly hinder WSU’s ability to perform our core mission as a land grant institution in education, research, and outreach,” the faculty letter reads. “We question the fairness of this plan. The Athletics Department currently has an accumulated debt of $120M and continues to lose approximately $10M per year as revenues fall far short of expenses, yet academic departments across the WSU system have made painful sacrifices to balance their budgets.”

However much sense this request makes, you have to think the odds of its succeeding are slim. There’s always money for athletics, after all, even when there isn’t any money for athletics. You just put it on the university credit card and push the repayment date down the road. If the WSU Faculty Senate were able to change that trajectory even a little, it would be a big victory.

The pandemic has put an extra layer of pressure on the long-simmering questions of athletics spending at many public universities. At Eastern Washington University, the Board of Trustees is set to hear a consultant’s report Friday that examines sports spending and helps to set a course for how the school might consider changes.

The report follows up on a controversial faculty analysis last year that challenged the school to rethink how much it spends on sports. Using institutional data, that report pointed out that athletics success has had no influence on student enrollments, that a small percentage of students participate in athletics, and that alumni donations and ticket sales make up a tiny portion of the sports budget – most of which comes from university funds and student fees.

That report presented what might happen under a few hypothetical scenarios in which the university cut back sports spending and redirected money to academics – including dropping football altogether, which naturally garnered most of the attention.

At the time of its release, EWU’s administration could not have possibly been more dismissive; the Board of Trustees received the presentation without making a single comment or asking a single question.

With the coronavirus budget crunch, however, defending business as usual has become harder. The consultant’s report, which is not yet publicly available, will examine athletics spending and other data at EWU and will be followed by a period of public input and discussion before the university decides what to do next.

At WSU, the pandemic blew a hole of up to $30 million in the sports budget. But the financial problems are not recent – they date back to the decision to go broke for football in the Elson Floyd-Bill Moos era, and they persisted, and often deepened, with each subsequent, annual decision to double down on athletics spending, to “borrow” resources from other university functions and to recalibrate annually the hopeful charts and graphics about the future date that athletics will climb out of the hole.

The faculty challenge deserves serious consideration, not polite and empty rebuttals. Sports are an important part of the university experience, and they provide an invaluable connection for many alumni – and they’re fun to watch. Supporters of overspending on athletics often argue those points, as if they justify any level of spending whatsoever, and there is always another school somewhere spending even more for comparison.

As the Faculty Senate wrote in its letter to the Regents: “The Faculty Senate believe that there are serious, larger questions to address, including: How will WSU spend down the Athletics Department’s cumulative debt of $120M? As a rural, land grant university, can the WSU system afford the luxury of an Athletics Department that is not self-sustaining?”

It sure seems to be trying.

An illustrative tale: Two years ago, with much fanfare, Schulz announced WSU had eliminated a $30 million deficit in its main operating budget by bringing in more international students, who pay higher tuition, and by implementing spending cuts campus-wide.

Well, not quite campus-wide.

No, even as the university was celebrating this fiscal accomplishment, the athletics department was going deeper into debt – raising its projected deficits by $17 million from the previous year.

Back in black. Except for the drunk uncle.

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