Lost in the fog of the primary election and the latest public corruption trial in the Mahoning Valley was an in-depth financial analysis of yearly spending on sports at Ohio’s 10 public universities that subsidize their athletic programs.
And what the numbers-crunching by Cleveland.com (the Cleveland Plain Dealer) reveals is a truism about higher education today: Spending priorities are skewed.
This isn’t just the opinion of a cynical, crusty old journalist who sees no joy in Mudville.
Twenty-eight years ago, one of the most popular and successful football coaches in the history of Youngstown State University warned that college athletic departments had no choice but to cut costs.
“We have to become more proactive instead of reactive,” said James P. Tressel, who coached at YSU from 1986 to 2000 and led teams to four national championships in Division I-AA.
Tressel’s comment was prompted by warnings he heard at the NCAA convention in Dallas and coaching convention in San Francisco about what was in store for athletic departments if they didn’t reduce spending.
Indeed, university presidents insisted that athletic departments demonstrate their commitment to cost-cutting measures.
“They sent their message loud and clear,” said Tressel, who went on to coach Ohio State University’s football team to a national championship and is now president of Youngstown State. “Either you make a decision or we will. The postscript to what they are saying, ‘You won’t like our decision.’ ”
But time has a way of dulling the sense of urgency, and so the analysis by Cleveland.com shows that annual spending on sports at the 10 public universities has shot up nearly $90 million since 2010.
How are the institutions paying for the increased costs? By sucking up even more dollars from non- athletic sources.
“There simply isn’t enough money from ticket sales and donors to pay the bills,” wrote reporter Rich Exner, whose exhaustive report should be required reading on college campuses.
Here are some eye-popping numbers: Total athletic spending at the 10 schools hit $292.2 million during the 2016-17 school year. That figure represents a 42 percent increase from the 2009-10 fiscal year.
And Exner has two more comparisons that should fuel the debate around the state: The increase in spending is more than triple the 12 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index during the same period; subsidies from student fees and other institutional support increased 42 percent from $127.9 million to $181.8 million.
The Cleveland.com analysis is replete with charts and graphs that offer a comparison of athletic spending at the 10 universities.
Before focusing on Youngstown State University’s story, let’s look at two charts for some insight into what’s happening on campuses.
The first is titled “Cost per student on campus to subsidize sports.” The numbers are based on student fees, other subsidies, and total campus enrollment.
Here’s the list: Wright State, $611; Kent State, $701; Ohio University, $736; Cleveland State, $796; University of Cincinnati, $870; Youngstown State, $991; Bowling Green, $1,011; Toledo, $1,167; Akron, $1,269; Miami, $1,332.
The second chart shows “Athletic expenses covered by ticket revenue.”
Here’s the list: Cleveland State, 0.9 percent; Wright State, 2.5 percent; Akron, 2.9 percent; Kent, 3.1 percent; Miami, 3.2 percent; Youngstown State, 3.3 percent; Ohio University, 3.6 percent; Toledo, 6 percent; Bowling Green, 8.2 percent; Cincinnati, 11.8 percent.
Now, let’s look at Exner’s analysis of Youngstown State, which has a long tradition of college sports.
In 2009-10, total cost of athletics was $11.8 million, with $8.4 million coming from university subsidies.
In 2016-17, the total cost of athletics was $15.4 million, with $10.4 million coming from university subsidies.
Let’s dig a little deeper to understand what’s going on at YSU.
In 2016-17, total spending on sports was $15,410,657; ticket revenue was $504,442; contributions from donors, $926,259.
Subsidies from student fees or other non-athletic sources were $10,401,241. That translates to 67 percent of athletic expenses, which amounts to $991 a year per student on campus.
There are 19 sports teams on campus with 331 athletes receiving scholarships from a pool of $4.67 million.
All those numbers are revealing and set the stage for a debate about athletics vs. academics.
But here are several expenditures in the Athletic Department that should awaken students and their parents from their slumber:
Coaching pay and benefits: $3,483,998.
Head football coach pay and benefits (the nationally renowned Bo Pelini): $377,775.
Head men’s basketball coach pay and benefits (Jerrod Calhoun): $294,062.
Head women’s basketball coach pay and benefits (John Barnes): $248,642.
Staff pay and benefits: $2,617,499.
It should be clear by now that with the future of Youngstown State and other public institutions of higher learning hanging in the balance, spending priorities are a major cause for concern.
It is no secret that lawmakers in Columbus are demanding a major restructuring of Ohio’s public universities and colleges to end duplication of academic programs and cut costs.
There also is a great deal of concern over the growing college student debt.
Last week on the Editorial Page, YSU President Tressel made the argument that a large majority of Ohioans recognize and appreciate the high-impact, high-value benefits of higher education.
But Tressel also conceded that student debt is a problem that he and members of his administration are working to address.
Given the amount of money being funneled to sports from nonathletic sources, it is clear that a campuswide discussion about spending priorities is timely and necessary.
As a final note, Ohio State isn’t included in the analysis because its athletic department is self-sustaining.