More than ever, fiscal realities of major sports put the spotlight on Cougar fans

THE UNIVERSITY of Washington athletic department projected the other day that it would lose $14.8 million in the fiscal year ending June 30. That news comes on the heels of WSU’s announcement in March that the athletic department lost more than $13 million for the second-straight year.

How UW is able to announce its numbers three weeks before the end of the fiscal year while it takes WSU until eight months after the fiscal year to release its numbers is one question that begs.

But more important is this: how most of the national numbers-crunching of the NCAA’s public universities in recent years puts at approximately 12 the number of athletic departments that aren’t in the red each year. You read that correctly. Despite record revenues, all but a dozen athletic departments are in the red.

WSU is a case in point of the phenomenon. Annual athletic department revenues have grown from $32.4 million in 2004 to $43.1 million in the past fiscal year.

Yet expenses are outdistancing revenues across the country as a result of the facilities arms race, ever-climbing salaries for coaches, nutrition programs, increased stipends for athletes, and more.

The debt service alone on WSU’s two facilities jewels — the Cougar Football Complex and the premium seating on the south side of Martin Stadium — is more than $9 million per year.

WSU knew the investment to get facilities to a Power 5 realm would require deficit spending.  The original goal was to break even in FY19, but it's now a moving target, WSU athletic director Bill Moos said in March.

All of which puts a spotlight on someone.

And that someone is you, Cougar fans.

Simply put, Cougs must do better. No matter how you slice support — in the number of donors or the size of the average donation — WSU is last or near last in the conference. WSU also is the only school in the conference whose donors don’t fully cover the costs of athletic scholarships — a chasm that costs Moos about $4 million a year in his operating budget.

There will be no sudden windfall from the Pac-12 Networks nor, as we’ve detailed over recent weeks here and here, in WSU's apparel contract.

That means fans must step up their game.

So it’s perhaps not a coincidence that this inspiring video by the Cougar Athletic Fund arrived in the email inbox earlier this week about the same time as this "letter to campus" from new WSU President Kirk Schulz ....

(abridged) "...Over the past 2 months, I have had the opportunity to review the WSU budget with key members of the senior leadership team. In short, we have been spending more money annually over the past couple of years than has been brought in, which is simply not sustainable. As a University we are spending down central reserves at a significant rate and will need to make some adjustments as to how we budget future building projects and new University initiatives. In order to address these issues we are taking some immediate steps:

  • First, we will be re-instituting a formalized budget development process for the University. It has been a number of years since a formalized process has been used internally at WSU, and in meeting with our key institutional financial officers we all agree that it is time to bring an improved budgeting process in place.

  • Second, we can no longer build new buildings without a comprehensive funding plan in place, and we cannot rely on University reserves to “make up” for funds that haven’t been clearly identified. This will require us to be very strategic in our capital projects, and we will involve the WSU fundraising team much earlier in capital project development. Since we have a 10-year plan for capital projects, we need to integrate anticipated state support with private philanthropy more effectively. The bottom line for the future: if we don’t have all funds accounted for, we can’t break ground and start building new projects.

  • Third, we cannot bring items to the Board of Regents for approval on anything without a robust financial analysis accompanying our proposals. I will insist on this internally, which may mean it takes a bit longer to have fully developed proposals and initiatives.

  • Fourth, we are continuing discussions with WSU Athletics on ways to reduce our annual deficit. I am working closely with Director of Athletics Bill Moos and his staff to develop a plan that ensures we are balancing revenues and expenses while also ensuring we continue to compete for Pac-12 championships. I will present more details on this to the campus community in the early fall.

Ultimately, we will have some financial challenges over the next couple of years and I will work to ensure that University leadership is bringing forth reasonable solutions that continue our positive momentum but are fiscally responsible …"

SCHULZ’ MESSAGE IS LOUD and clear: Moos and his fundraisers need to step up and you, Cougar fans, need to open wallets to a far greater extent.

Better efficiency and effectiveness can go far in helping improve the bottom line of any organization, but know this: WSU is not going to compete in athletics year in and year out by slashing budgets in order to reach break even.

Revenues must climb. And given that the current economy in the state of Washington outshines those in Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Arizona, it’s pretty clear the ball is now in the court of Cougar fans.


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