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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington State University faculty skeptical of athletics budget recovery plan

Martin Stadium in March 2020, on WSU's campus in Pullman.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

While Washington State University administrators believe a series of recently approved spending measures will help bring balance to a struggling athletics department budget, university faculty feel they may instead lead to a deeper hole.

The Board of Regents moved earlier this month to bond for $35.6 million to bridge a $31.1 million athletics department shortfall in the current fiscal year, with significant revenue losses attributed to COVID-19 impacts. The board also approved the athletics budget for the coming 2022 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The financing, with interest included, is estimated to cost approximately $63 million through 2041, according to university projections. Adding that to existing athletics debt commitments, WSU is looking at approximately $216 million in athletics debt obligations over the next 20 years.

University officials have said the plan is to pay that off the debt attributed to the $35.6 million in bonding through future Pac-12 Conference media and bowl revenues.

Budget documents show the university expects that revenue to increase in the next several years, forecasting $48 million in Pac-12 revenue for the 2026 fiscal year based on conference projections. That is an approximately 38% increase from the $34.7 million budgeted for 2019-20.

“We recognize that these current steps will get us through the short term, but is the problem really going to go away?” said Matthew Carroll, a member of the WSU Faculty Senate. “My colleagues and I think that it probably is not.”

Count Luke Premo, a professor who’s also on the Faculty Senate, among those who isn’t confident the athletics department can pay off the newly approved debt on top of existing debt service payments from past endeavors – particularly the remodel of Martin Stadium and building a new football operations building.

“Even though it seems like 70% of college teams now go to some college bowl game, the proceeds from most of those bowls are not large enough to explain the very high projected values,” Premo said in an email. “I would like to believe they aren’t betting our house on the notion that WSU football will be in the Rose Bowl every year for the next 20 years straight, but it is hard to tell given the limited information I see in the Action Items.”

WSU faculty members have historically expressed skepticism over athletics spending over the years.

University administrators have said plans were once in place earlier to help the athletics department break even by 2023 before they were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There were several plans by which this debt was going to be reduced and ultimately retired, and so far, none of them have worked,” Carroll said. “The debt that the athletics department is spending is real dollars, but the athletic department’s plan to fundraise their way out of the situation is aspirational.”

Greg Crouch, faculty representative to the Board or Regents, declined to comment on the athletics budget, instead deferring to previous public statements such as those on the WSU Faculty Senate blog.

Earlier this month, Crouch said he’s heard concerns with the revenue projections and what could happen if those don’t come to pass.

Premo said university administrators should look to the expenses budgeted for athletics staff salaries especially with the university looking to pick up the $2.4 million Pac-12 Conference fee starting in the 2023 fiscal year. The university took on that fee until six to eight years ago.

“In the end, this plan doesn’t show much courage,” Premo said. “It merely kicks the can down the road without addressing at all how the athletics department must pay back $83.9M of internal debt or that, in light of consistently insufficient revenue streams, they must decrease six- and seven-figure salaries in order to carve out $2.4M to cover their Pac-12 conference fee.”