UW Athletics Budget Becomes A Hot Button Issue

Sep 2, 2016

Credit Bob Beck

Many programs on the University of Wyoming campus are facing budget cuts, but there are those who believe that academics is suffering more than it should.

That’s especially when compared to athletics. In public forums several faculty and staff members say they want athletics de-emphasized at the University. The reason is because they think it costs a lot and is not priority. 

It doesn't help that the football team is coming off dismal 2-10 football season, that the head coach makes a million dollars, and the athletics department is building a $41 million for a nutrition and training center. While a lot of private dollars are involved in both the building and the coaches salary, many are still angry.

Dr. Robin Hill has been a part of the UW Philosophy Department for many years and graduated from UW. Hill remembers when there was not so much emphasis on winning. 

“I wish we had athletics at that level now. Rather than importing very expensive players, and facilities, and equipment, and nutrition centers, and staff. “I just think this trend is leading us in a bad direction.” 

Hill said she understands that many in the state put a lot of importance on UW athletics, but that troubles her. 

“I just think this trend is leading us in a bad direction.” 

Hill’s concerns are more moderate than others. Some want athletics at UW whacked, while others think de-emphasizing football is the way to go.  

University of Wyoming Athletics Director Tom Burman says college athletics is important. 

“We should take a cut, we should participate in these reductions, but I also get offended when someone says we really aren’t a part of the University’s mission.”

Burman added that athletics brings a diverse student body to campus, its teams provide much needed PR for UW, and it gives the state a reason to rally around UW. 

“We bring dollars to UW. I believe we are a critical element to the University’s visibility around Wyoming and the region. We do some really good things for the University of Wyoming and a few disgruntled employees aren’t gonna bring us down.” 

UW athletics gets about $10 million out of UW’s general fund, which puts it in the middle of the pack when looking at spending on major programs at the University. The Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Agriculture, Engineering, as well as the Physical plant and library all get more. Athletics also gets about $2 million in student fees. The legislature also provides matching money specifically for the athletics department. If UW raises up to four million, that money is matched dollar for dollar. During a fiscal downturn that was controversial spending. Senator Jeff Wasserburger was among those who opposed it.   

“I don’t see us getting a great deal of return for our sports. And I would submit to this body that maybe we shouldn’t be in division one. And I’m not sure how long we can afford to have this luxury.  

Earlier this summer UW President Laurie Nichols noted that while athletics is responsible for two thirds of its own budget, it may need to raise even more money. 

‘If they want to maintain the budget they have today and they want to maintain excellence, we’re gonna need more private support.” 

That clearly makes Athletics Director Tom Burman nervous, since the department budget it among the smallest in the conference, but he said a winning football team would help. 

“If we can turn football in the next two years from a 2-10 team to a 7-5 team, which is I think very doable, it changes the whole dynamic of our revenue stream. I think we are talking a million to a million and a half new dollars that aren’t available today.” 

That’s if they remain a division one football team. In spite of popular opinion, the UW football team does make money. Last season Cowboy Football earned $2 million despite only winning two games. That surplus goes towards paying for the rest of the teams in the department, such as track, tennis, wrestling, and soccer. If Wyoming dropped down a level, the football team would lose money. It gets extra revenue that’s earned from some of the teams they play, and from television contracts which will land the Cowboys on national television nine times this season.

Wyoming already lost a bundle of money when Texas Christian, Brigham Young, and Utah left the conference and stopped playing them. And if Wyoming dropped a level in football, it would lose even more. Burman notes that Wyoming would be forced to leave the Mountain West Conference in all sports and join a smaller conference such as the Big Sky.   

“In the Mountain West conference we get a little over $2 million a year in television and other revenue dollars that come to UW athletics. In the Big Sky, they get $100,000 a year.” 

Generally when teams drop a level, they come racing back because the revenue loss was great. Burman argues that the same thing would happen here. He also doubts that many in the state would stand for dropping down a level and UW Professor Robert Sprague agrees. He’s part of a committee recommending additional budget cuts at UW. While Sprague thinks the department is tone deaf when it comes to cuts other programs on campus are facing, he figures any attempt to scale back football wouldn’t go very far. 

“You fundamentally it comes down to a question, can we afford to stay at that level. And my personal feeling is that I think the legislature is going to make sure one way or another they can. I think they’ll fund athletics before they fund academics here.”