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What the Devil won't tell you

See crimson, stem tide: March against madness of UA athletics subsidy

Proposed $100 student fee should rouse the ire of all sides of political debate

Gentlemen ... start your expletives.

Ladies … get out your pink hats.

Students … I want you to pretend Steve Bannon is coming to campus ...

Protesting the University of Arizona's $100 student fee to support athletics programs, proposed Friday, won't just require typical sign-waving, circle- drumming peaceful protest. This plan needs to be smacked back hooded-anarchist style (OK, don't set fires but urge a "no" vote by the Arizona Board of Regents).

The fee was announced on the second day of the NCAA's billion-dollar men's basketball tournament, giving new meaning to March Madness because it amplifies a change in the UA financing that needs reversing rather than accelerating.

The UA Athletics Department traditionally operated as an enterprise fund. It lives off its earnings and it earns a lot — $87 million per year, in fact. In recent years, it's required a subsidy from the general fund that's already being stretched to its breaking point to pay for book learning.

Here are two facts you need to know before we start: Arizona's universities just witnessed the biggest state general fund cuts of any public higher ed system in America. Tack this fee onto the current subsidy for Arizona and Arizona State and the two schools combine for a $30 million general fund subsidy of college athletics. The Wildcats and Sun Devils would be the Aggies and Longhorns of using book money to pay for the multi-billion-dollar college athletics industry.

You are mad about City Councilwoman Regina Romero receiving a city car? How do you feel about subsidizing Sean Miller's private jet? Miffed about Chuck Huckelberry or Ann Weaver Hart pulling in $300,000 salaries to oversee thousands of workers? Then how do you feel about taxpayers subsidizing an athletic director who will earn $650,000 per year to oversee a few hundred scholarship athletes?

It's time to say no to more of this insanity and reverse the trend outright.

Subsidizing a billion-dollar operation

See, here's how it's a subsidy: If a student can afford an extra $100 to pay for UA athletics, that that means they can afford that much to pay for better teachers and classrooms. It also means they can relieve taxpayers of $3 million to $11 million in collective subsidy.

Tuition increases are a sad fact of modern politics because we elect leaders who think forcing people to pay for others is akin to slavery. In that environment, telling students to pay for stadiums and Gulfstreams is just abuse.

USA Today runs a database that details college athletic department revenues, expenditures and subsidies. To be sure, other universities subsidize even more than UA and ASU, but those schools tend to be recognizable as Bracket Meat for the 1st and 2nd Seeds come March Madness. We're talking Coppin State, James Madison and Towson. The University of Connecticut (UConn, in NCAA speak) ranks No. 1 among subsidized major athletic programs — to the tune of $31 million.

Arizona State ranks second among schools likely to be nationally broadcast at $19 million.

UA athletics, according to USA Today, gets an $8 million subsidy right now but the fee increase of $100, charged eventually to 33,700 undergrads, would bring the school up to $11 million. That would rank Arizona third among high-profile schools getting money that could go into academics.

So long as UA athletics was self-funded, why complain about charter jets, killer facilities and sky boxes? Then Robin Hood got confused and a program that receives millions from beer and snack companies is sucking money out of freshman Comp classes.

The polarity is reversing and the UA Athletics Department is asking to accelerate a trend to tap into the pocketbooks of parents, students and even student loan underwriters to increase a $87 million annual budget.

Remember, the Arizona Constitution requires a college education be available for residents at a price “as nearly free as possible.” We can have a debate about what that means, but I think we can agree that it doesn't translate into “as nearly free as possible while affording a sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker and keeping private planes gassed up.”

The other national rankings

The Arizona Republic did an in-depth look at Arizona State University's subsidy back in 2012 and how the PAC-12 seemed to be jumping on this new funding source – the students.

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"We're in a vicious cycle," said William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system and co-chairman of the Knight Commission. "What happens in the Pac-12 people will replicate in other conferences. Just when one conference thinks it's solved its resource problem, the whole escalation in costs will come back and bite them down the road. We've had a distortion of values. Too much money is being spent on something that is supposed to be an extracurricular activity."

To be fair, the story reports that ASU's athletic program planned to ween itself off the subsidy in the years ahead. To be blunt, ASU's subsidy has more than doubled since. And do be doubly fair, the University of Maryland Terrapins are subsidized to the tune of $9 million a year.

The leaders in collegiate athletics revenues aren't yet even in this game but the kind of fee UA is proposing means that sooner or later they'll jump in like we have. Take a look at the seven richest athletic departments in the country, a.k.a., “the Football Schools” and where Arizona ranks.

School RevenuesSubsidy
1. Texas A&M $192,608,876 $0
2. Texas $183,521,028 $0
3. Ohio State $167,166,065 $0
4. Michigan $152,477,026 $263,345
5. Alabama $148,911,674 $2,616,895
6. Florida $147,105,242 $1,856,122
7. LSU $138,642,237 $0
35. Arizona $87,135,331 $8,965,277

If the $100 fee were in place now, it would vault UA up at most four spots. That puts the school right on top of West Virginia and North Carolina bunched together in the rankings. To keep their edge, North Carolina, Indiana and Ole Miss would be under pressure to increase their subsidy and on and on and on.

The race for cash is pointless and unnecessary, said one athletic director profiled in USA Today for getting a great bang for the buck.

"There's a handful of programs that have those $100 million-plus budgets," he says. "But the majority of us in the (Power) Five are less than that. We've focused on our strengths and what separates us from the competition. It can't be all about money — though money is important, and we're constantly trying to grow our budget. … We've tried to have an infrastructure that's very good and efficient."

Who was that thrifty guy? Why, outgoing-to-gone University of Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne. Byrne said that. Byrne has left to take over sports for the Alabama Crimson Tide, a football team with a campus attached (and I guess they hand out degrees or something).

Cereal bowls to fish tanks

When it comes to general fund cash sources, first comes the knock on the door followed by the foot in the door. Soon enough, the humble solicitation morphs into a house guest who won't leave, lounging on the couch, hoarding the remote and demanding you get him a beer, and not that domestic crap but the good stuff, in bottles. And no twist-offs, either.

First, for liberals: My freshman year, we used to have to provide ticket takers with two items to get through the turnstile and into the student section. The ticket had to be accompanied by a fees receipt. I can still see them for in-state students. Tuition: 0. Fees: $498.

Then in the 1990s, the Arizona Legislature decided that the rest of us shouldn't be footing the bill for college kids who ain't ours. To keep up, the Arizona Board of Regents decided to just charge students a little bit of tuition – just a taste. Today, that tuition breaks $10,000 a year.

Next for conservatives: In 1913, progressives got an income tax amendment added to the U.S. Constitution so Congress could add a teeny tiny 1 percent tax on the rich. Today, mechanics have to itemize their socket wrenches or have their financial innards scoped by the Internal Revenue Service.

No better example exists today than pro sports.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, pro sports teams only needed bland, round and ugly stadiums for football and baseball. They went by the names Veterans, Riverfront and Shea. They were everywhere from Oakland to Atlanta and all looked exactly – I mean exactly – the same. They were all cereal bowls ringed by wavy walk-up concourses but fans still went. Championships were still won. Officials were still jeered.

Now each sport needs its own playground with fish tanks, swimming pools and retractable roofs. They're all named after your favorite bankers because hey, who is more beloved in American culture than the bankers who routinely wreck everything?

Taxpayers footed the bill for most of those stadiums but the Eagles and Phillies had to share. The costs ran in the low hundred millions to build. Their replacements weren't that much more expensive in real terms when they came on line in the late 1990s but cities needed two – Pirates and Steelers had their own precious needs – doubling the cost. Then came Citi Field – a $1 billion sports experience for the New York effing Mets. The Cubs? Maybe. The Yankees? Perfectly Sith-like. The Mets? Hell no.

You think when Mookie Wilson got called up from the backwater that is Tidewater in 1980, he said “yeah but Shea Stadium? C'mon!”

The game went on without the adornments.

Advocatus Diaboli

Okay, counselor for Team Satan. I got you:

Arizona athletics are about brand and attention that can draw more out-of-state students to the UA and thereby bring more money onto campus to help defray costs for in-state students.

Arizona didn't lose in the Elite Eight for three out of five years because students weren't forking over a C-note apiece. Arizona hasn't failed to make the Rose Bowl for the want of $3 million dollars. A final shot didn't fall against UConn in 2011 and Nick Johnson drew an iffy foul in the waning moments against Wisconsin. The Wildcats laid an egg – hard for a Wildcat to do because they are not marsupials – against Oregon in 2014 PAC-12 championship.

When I covered the UA back in the Aaughts, former President Peter Likins made a point of how the UA campus is landlocked and unable to expand without high costs. It couldn't really serve much more than 40,000 students. So Likins and ASU President Michael Crow convinced the Board of Regents to pursue a future where the UA was the elite school and ASU would be the innovative campus for everyone.

Likins may have been manufacturing a limitation some to pursue his goal but UA's student body has increased about 20 percent since those days while ASU's headcount has gone up by nearly 60 percent.

Throw in a growing in-state population to serve and there's not a bunch of room to bring in Michiganders to pay for Tucsonans. More than that, Purdue was once a top-notch athletics program but not so much anymore. Out-of-state enrollment in West Lafayette has doubled since 1995.  Glenn Robinson left but they still got a great engineering school.

Quick and dirty back-of-napkin calculations show that a $10 surcharge on tickets for UA football and basketball tickets would give the athletics the $3 million they need (assuming 12 home basketball games with 13,000 attendance and five football games averaging 30,000).

What the NCAA should do immediately is bar any general fund subsidies for college athletics and cap expenditures for all programs. The arms race needs to stop when the opportunity for higher education is getting harder and harder for families and the loans required to attend school are wrecking the finances of young adults.

If the NBA, NHL and NFL can impose salary caps to protect billionaire owners from millionaire players, then the NCAA can take action to protect middle and working-class families from the costs of showpiece college athletics.

Then take that billion dollars from the Final Four, the half-billion for the Bowl Championship Series and all the rest of the cash left over and spend that money on scholarships and basic research – stuff more resembling the actual purpose of college.

In the mean time, Arizonans of all stripes need to tell the Athletics Department to give us back the remote, get off our couch and get their owned damn honey-wheat lager. They can downgrade to a turboprop to pay for it.

And of course, go Cats!

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Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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