Western athletics more reliant on student fees over the last decade

Quarterback Adam Perry holds Western records for passing yards and completions. // Photo courtesy of WWU Athletics

By Dante Koplowitz-Fleming

On a Saturday in late October of 2008, senior Adam Perry, starting quarterback for Western’s football team, tied a school record by tossing five touchdown passes in a blowout win over Humboldt State. Perry went on to cement his name in Western’s record books for most passing yards and completions in a season, and tie for first in touchdowns in a season.

Those records would never get a chance to be broken.

There were 2,150 people at Civic Stadium for the team’s last home game. While they might have cheered watching Western topple the 2-9 Loggers, a high note of their first – and last – winning season since 2004, it would have been nothing like the cheers for the home teams that Western played while on the road.

From 2004 to 2008, attendance at Western’s road games was more than double what they could attract while at home. Western football just wasn’t as popular as comparable programs in the area. Even those lowly Humboldt State Loggers brought in more fans at their home game against Western in 2008 than the Vikings did at their own.

In January of 2009, Western eliminated its football program due to what the university called significant budget challenges. These challenges were not unique to the athletics department, as the university was experiencing significant state budget reductions related to the 2008 recession.

When the football program was cut, it was costing the athletics department $491,687 per year, according to records obtained via a public records request. The team brought in $133,830 in total revenue, but the department had to pick up the rest of the tab.

Cutting the football team, however, didn’t fix the athletics department’s budget woes. An analysis of university records shows the athletics department’s beginning balance for this year was $250,677 in the red.

On top of that, students are funding a larger portion of the budget now than they were a decade ago, when there was a football team costing nearly half-a-million dollars.

 

Who’s paying?

 

Western athletics are funded by the Services and Activities Fee that is included as part of students’ tuition.

Students pay a flat fee that has increased each year. In 2017, each student paid $209.50 per quarter, and then that money is pooled up and divided by a fee committee.

The Services and Activities Fee funds several programs on campus, but the majority of that money goes toward the Associated Students and the athletics department.

In 2008, 31.5 percent of the athletics department budget was funded by student fees. In 2017, that number has increased to 47.1 percent of the budget being student funded, according to documents obtained from the university.

Western’s Athletic Director Steve Card said this is because the amount of state dollars the department received has not seen a meaningful increase in the last decade. In 2008, state funds allocated to the athletics department totaled just over $1 million. In 2018, that number increased to $1.3 million, an increase of just $60,000 when adjusted for inflation.

With flatlining state dollars, the burden of running a Division II athletics department has fallen on the students.

“We haven’t really seen any new dollars come in on the state side in quite some time,” Card said. “You go back 10 years ago and we were at the beginning of the recession and everybody was taking reductions.”

The football team was draining money and couldn’t draw half the fans its rivals could. // Photo courtesy of WWU Athletics

Western’s most obvious reduction was the elimination of the football program, one of the school’s oldest, and most expensive, varsity sports. Much of the sport’s expense was due to the size of the roster, which would hover around 100 players. Today, there are only around 300 varsity student athletes at Western in total.

Since that reduction, the total athletics budget has grown from $3,500,515 in 2009 to $4,282,120, a 5 percent increase when adjusted for inflation.

“The only other way that I can go about enhancing or growing our program is when I go to the students and request the funds through the S&A fee process,” Card said. “And that’s becoming more challenging in terms of enhancement and growth.”

In the last 10 years, the athletics department has successfully obtained a 36.2 percent increase in funds that come from student fees when adjusted for inflation, or almost $1 million more in annual funds this year than in 2008. Those funds come solely from tuition dollars.

That money pays for everything from repainted foul poles in softball ($12,000 according to Card) to an athletic trainer’s salary ($50,000) or a ticket to Alaska for the assistant men’s basketball coach ($400-$1,000 according to Card). Student fees have grown to represent the largest chunk of the athletics department’s operating budget in the last decade.

“The majority of our operation, probably 80 percent of it, is in salaries, benefits and travel. That’s probably where we spend a majority of our dollars,” Card said. “Pick any program and we’re funding the basic needs.”

Graph by Dante Koplowitz-Fleming

Card added until recently the department only had full-time assistant coaches for three of the 10 varsity sports. Between salaries, travel and scholarships, it’s difficult to make budget reductions, Card said.

“We were fortunate several years ago to get some additional funding through the S&A fee process to get all of our assistant coaches up to full-time,” he said. “At all costs you don’t want to start reducing scholarships. That’s our lifeline. You can’t really reduce coaching staffs.”

Take away the basic needs of the programs all there is left to look at is administration.

“You start looking at some other things, we would look at things administratively that we’re doing, that we’re spending money on and trying to enhance the student experience,” Card said. “You come to a game, we’ve got a marketing team that we’ve put together that does tremendous work, but at the end of the day that might be something we might look at reducing because it doesn’t necessarily equate to wins and losses.”

With lack-luster state dollars, rising program costs and low attendance, its difficult to see Western having an athletics department without it being heavily subsidized by students.

“I don’t feel comfortable consistently going back to the students and asking them for dollars. It’s costing enough. I put both my kids through college here so I know how much it costs,” Card said. “It’s really going to be about finding new revenue streams to take the burden off our students and do it on our own.”

Currently, a full-time student attending Western for three quarters a year pays $623 annually in Services and Activities fees. Of that, $113 goes directly into the athletics department’s operating budget.

This raises the question, do the students paying for the athletics department care about the sports at Western?

 

Western’s attendance issues

 

“I know this is at the expense of student athletes who like those sports but, even something like the NCAA Division II West Regional Championship… it’s like, if it ain’t Division I what kind of championship is this?” Alex LaVallee, the Associated Students vice president of business and operations said while looking over the past couple years of funding requests made by the athletics department.

 

LaVallee said he sees the value for the student athletes who compete at that level, but he wonders what the benefit to Western’s community is.

“I mean, if they had a varsity sport that people attended then they could cover more with revenue,” he said.

LaVallee is an elected board member of the Associated Students, a program that directly competes with the athletics department for funding from student fees.

Attendance at Western sporting events has been on decline in the last decade. The Western men’s basketball team, the school’s most heavily attended sport, had 1,123 people in attendance on average from 2008-12. Since then, home games have had an average attendance of 752.

Part of that drop can be attributed to the renovation of the Sam Carver Gymnasium, but even after the completion of the new $75 million gym and an inaugural season that saw the Viking men’s team tally a 21-8 record, average attendance for home games was only 834. On away games, the average attendance was 924, meaning Western’s opponents regularly have higher home-game turnout than the Vikings get at Carver.

The only seasons in the last decade with lower attendance for men’s and women’s basketball than last year’s were when Western’s gym was being renovated between 2014-16, where the team had to play home games at Whatcom Community College.

Even when Western’s sports teams experience record success, it hasn’t necessarily translated to more fans in the bleachers.

“I think it gives great national recognition to our institution when our teams do well. You think about when we won men’s basketball in 2012, there were 3.5 million people watching that game on CBS,” Card said. “Three and a half million people, that’s a great advertisement for our institution.”

While millions may have watched Western on CBS, overall home attendance numbers only saw a brief improvement.

Between 2011 and 2013 the men’s basketball team averaged 1,247 people in attendance per game.

The next year that number fell to 961 and continued to falter until the 2017-2018 season when it rose to 824.

Raw attendance averages have dropped despite Western’s enrollment growing from 14,620 in fall of 2008 to 15,915 in fall of 2018.

Men’s and women’s basketball as well as volleyball have all seen lower attendances at home games in the last five years compared to the five prior to that. But volleyball is the only sport that saw a real improvement with Carver’s renovation, averaging 694 fans in attendance per game, their highest in the last 10 years.

Card attributes part of the recent slump in attendance to what he calls peripheral effects from the Carver renovation.

“We actually thought that when we reopened Carver this year that we would get this massive boost. People would want to come in and see the new building, our teams were finally back on campus… it just didn’t come to fruition,” Card said. “You can’t really project that.”

Graph by Dante Koplowitz-Fleming

 

Costs of Division II

 

Low attendance and high costs were major reasons for the elimination of Western’s football program.

From 2004 to 2008, Viking home football games brought in 2,037 people on average. On away games, their opponents amassed an average of 4,620. Western had two winning seasons within that span, one in 2004 and one in their final season.

When the Vikings traveled to Cheney in 2008 to play against Eastern, 7,500 people showed up. When they played at Central, over 5,000 people were in attendance.

The last game Central Washington played in Bellingham brought in under 3,000.

“Our ticket sale revenue was not anything close to what the cost of the program was,” Card said. “That was the one that was the most expensive sports that we’ve ever had. The revenue generated from football did not even come close – it was a fraction.”

Football was draining money from the budget and couldn’t draw half of the fans that its rivals could.

“I know from talking to Steve [Card] and other administration that there is less quote-unquote school spirit here,” Associated Students Vice Presidents for Activities Julia Rutledge said. “I don’t know if that was different when football was around, I get the feeling that it wasn’t and that was a factor in why the team was eliminated.”

The athletics department sustains 15-16 percent of its revenue from ticket sales, marketing, advertising and fundraising. That number hasn’t increased since the elimination of football.

Without steady improvement of ticket sales or ad revenue, students will continually be asked to subsidize the athletics department.

“None of our teams make enough money to pay for themselves. That’s the big difference between Division I and Division II and it’s kind of a misnomer out there,” Card said. “I’ll go back to when we had football for example. Everyone said, ‘Football made money for you’ and I said ‘No, it didn’t.’ and I was the money guy and I could tell you that it didn’t make money.”

This story is one of a two-part series by Dante Koplowitz-Fleming and Tyler Urke for an advanced reporting course with professor Carolyn Nielsen. A second piece focused on the athletics travel budget can be found here.

One comment

  • I think Western as an institution should understand these aren’t the sports people play at WWU. While interest and attendance to this events dwindles e Ski, Wake, Mountain Bike, cycling, and longboard clubs continue to grow. The sheer amount of skaters on Westerns campus can’t be ignored. Western and Bellingham is home to some of the best freeride skiers and bikers in the nation, but these sports are not seen in the same light that basketball or softball are and as such don’t get the same attention or respect.

    Defunding athletics would be a huge mistake we just need to focus on the athletics people actually do.

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