By Scott Travis, Sun Sentinel
Students at the University of Florida pay about $46 a year to support the powerhouse Gator athletic program, a bargain price that hasn’t changed in a decade.
At schools with less established sports programs, such as Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University, students must pay more than $340 a year, even though the games struggle to attract student interest.
Students say it isn’t fair – especially now, with a recession making it harder to get student loans, cuts in Bright Futures scholarships and 15 percent increases in tuition.
“I don’t see why [FIU] students have to pay double, triple, or quadruple what UF students are paying,” said Diana Jordan, an FIU graduate student from Miami.
The reason: The state doesn’t allow taxpayer money to go toward sports programs, so schools with fewer alumni and donors rely more heavily on mandatory athletic fees.
In Florida, each university decides how big to build its sports program. Hoping to duplicate the success of the Florida Gators and the Florida State University Seminoles, the younger programs have spent millions creating football teams, building stadiums and moving into the NCAA’s top division.
But UF and FSU are the only two of the state’s 10 public universities with NCAA sports programs that make money. The eight others subsidize their programs, mostly through athletic fees, which have climbed steeply during the past decade. For example, full-time students taking 12 credit hours at FIU paid about $200 a year in student fees in fall 2000. Now they pay $368. At FAU, athletic fees have increased from $210 in 2000 to $343.
UF’s athletic fees are the lowest of any public university with an NCAA program. FSU is second, with full-time students paying about $162. Both schools generate enough revenue to donate money back to their schools’ academic programs.
At schools that rely more heavily on student athletic fees, officials defend the sports programs as bringing needed visibility to campuses. They say that can attract students and donors and bring alumni back to campus, even if that’s been slow to happen in the early years.
The money-losing nature of college sports has prompted big changes at some colleges around the country. Some have dropped football. Birmingham-Southern College and the University of New Orleans left Division I in recent years, moving to the less expensive Division III.
“You have to ask whether it’s the essence of the mission of higher education to be creating Coliseum-like entertainment venues and whether it’s appropriate to spend this money just because the masses want to be entertained,” said David Pollick, president of Birmingham-Southern College.
FIU hasn’t attracted masses. Its football team has struggled since it started in 2002. Attendance at home games was down by a third in 2009, to about 10,000 people per game. The football team has received national attention, but not for the reasons FIU wanted: the stabbing death of football player Kendall Berry in March and a brawl during a game against the University of Miami in 2006.
Still, Ken Jessell, senior vice president for finance at FIU, said students were part of the group that decided to bring football to FIU, realizing it would mean an increase in fees.
“The reality of Division I programs is that football costs the most money and takes the most time to build an established program,” Jessell said. “But over the long haul, it also brings in the greatest benefits to the university.”
Even in good times, most college sports programs, including those with winning football teams and die-hard fans, will lose money, experts say. The NCAA last year surveyed 327 Division I programs and found only 25 were profitable.
A separate survey from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics showed 44 percent of football programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A, don’t bring in enough to cover their expenses.
“There’s a disconnect with what the public thinks big-time programs bring in, in terms of revenues, and what the actual reality is,” said Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission.
Schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision can potentially collect a lot more revenue than those in smaller divisions, including conference distributions and bowl appearance fees. But those don’t offset the increases, such as the $4 million in scholarship money FAU must give to its athletes. And when tuition goes up, so do the scholarship expenses.
Indeed, the University of West Florida in Pensacola, a Division II school, opted not to pursue a move to a bigger division because of the expense. President Judy Bense denied a request to pursue moving to Division I, saying it would be “irresponsible to dedicate critical resources” that could be used to strengthen the existing program.
UWF would have had to spend at least $7.8 million in start-up costs to become Division I, including the application fee and facility upgrades, according to a consultant’s report. The school’s annual athletic budget would have increased by at least $1.7 million for scholarships as well as costs associated with adding a woman’s sport. UWF has 13 sports teams, one below Division I requirements. The university is still considering whether to add football on the Division II level.
FAU joined Division I in 1993 and added football in 2001. The football team, coached by Howard Schnellenberger, has had several successful seasons, including two bowl appearances. But ticket sales, donations and other outside revenues to FAU athletics fell to $4.8 million in 2008-09, down from $5.5 million the year before.
FAU Athletic Director Craig Angelos said the program is still building and had some setbacks because of the economy. But he still thinks it’s an important part of FAU’s long-term mission.
“Athletics may not be the most important thing that goes on at the university, but it is arguably the most visible area at this university as well as other universities,” he said
Financial troubles became apparent at the University of Central Florida’s athletic program after state auditors in June 2009 questioned why UCF loaned $9.5 million to its Athletic Association between 2004 and 2008. UCF officials say the association is now on a 14-year payback plan.
The university opened a stadium in 2007 and expects the entire sports program eventually will be self-supporting, said Bill Merck, vice president for administration and finance.
“Notable teams like Notre Dame and the University of Florida, they’ve been at it for quite awhile,” Merck said. “I certainly believe that UCF has the desire and capability of becoming successful financially given a little more time, and we’re going to help them get there.”
South Florida News Service reporter Jorge Valens contributed to this report.