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What is it? It’s the subsidy to support college sports at California’s fifteen Division 1 public universities. In 2016-17, the cost was $243 million dollars. And the price tag is almost certain to rise.

California Taxpayers

Subsidies are needed at most schools because athletic revenues (ticket and merchandise sales, TV revenues, conference contributions, and the like) aren’t enough to balance the books. Subsidies of special concern come from university base budgets (public money transferred to athletics) and student fees. And the $243 million is just for one year, mind you.

USAToday, which tracks the numbers, reports that 230 Division 1 public universities nationally generated over $10 billion dollars in sports revenues in 2016-17—and spent nearly all of that amount. Nearly $3 billion of revenues (about 30%) came from subsidies.

USAToday also reported that only about 15 of those schools were subsidy-free in 2016-17, including one California public university—Cal-Berkeley. At many schools, subsidies of 50% or more of revenues enable schools to balance the athletic books. That’s the case in California, too.

In fact, Division 1 college athletics at California’s public universities are among the most heavily subsidized systems (by percentage) in the country. The median subsidy rate is nearly 70% at the Golden State’s major sports-playing public universities. That means about 70 cents of every dollar in revenues comes from non-athletic sources. Seven California public schools have subsidy rates of at least 75% with four of those seven registering at 80+%—Riverside (88%), Fullerton (82%), Northridge (82%), and Sacramento (81%).

Only four California public schools have subsidy rates lower than 50%. The aforementioned Cal-Berkley, at zero, had $90 million dollars in revenues, which ranked #42 in size among America’s D1 public schools. UCLA is the 29th largest public program nationally by size ($104 million dollars in revenues). Its subsidy was about 3% of total revenues. After the Bears and Bruins, there’s a big jump to higher subsidy percentages—to Fresno State (45% subsidy) and San Diego State (46% subsidy).

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For years, the myth propagated to the public is that football and basketball (the primary revenue-producing sports) pay the bills for non-revenue sports. The reality is quite different.

For years, the myth propagated to the public is that football and basketball (the primary revenue-producing sports) pay the bills for non-revenue sports. The reality is quite different. At most public schools, football and basketball also need subsidies to stay in the black.

Neither the NCAA nor the conferences have regulations in place about how much money universities can spend on athletics. That situation fuels an arms race in big-time college sports, which includes escalating salaries for prime coaches.

ESPN reports that a college coach is the highest paid public employee in most states. In South Carolina, it’s Dabo Swinney, coach of the national champion Clemson (football) Tigers. Swinney just signed a 10-year, $93 million dollar contract. He’ll make that money as a public university employee in a state that ranks 44th in the country in personal income. In contrast to Swinney’s haul, South Carolina’s highest-ranking public official, Governor Henry McMaster, earns $106,000 annually.

With the high costs of college today and with astronomic college-related loan debt (now calculated at over $1.57 trillion dollars), I believe it’s foolish to subsidize college athletics at the rate described in this article. And I say that as a big college sports fan.

Because the NCAA and conferences are not taking action, I believe it’s time for state legislatures to get involved. I’d like to see a subsidy cap imposed on college athletics at major sports-playing state schools. 25-30% (or less) of total revenues from institutional sources + student fees is a reasonable number. If you agree, then write to your state assemblyperson and/or senator and call for action.

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What price are you willing to pay for college sports? For me, today’s price is somewhere out in left field.

Frank Fear