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The price of success: UC invests $290M on sports since 2010

'We just need a reasonable approach'
Posted: 1:02 PM, Feb 23, 2022
Updated: 2022-02-23 13:02:35-05

CINCINNATI — There were no big surprises Tuesday when University of Cincinnati trustees approved a contract extension that will make Luke Fickell one of the highest paid coaches in the Big 12 when UC joins the Power Five conference in 2024.

After all, Fickell led the Bearcats through a spellbinding 13-1 season that energized the community and left him just six wins shy of becoming UC’s winningest football coach ever. But the chairman of UC’s faculty senate was surprised that, before the unanimous vote, no one discussed the financial ramifications of a contract that will add $23 million in fixed costs to a program that needed a $27 million subsidy to make ends meet in the 2021 fiscal year.

“UC board meetings are not known for the robust discussion of these issues. That usually takes place behind closed doors,” said Gregory Loving, a philosophy professor at UC Clermont College. “But given that this was such a lucrative new contract, I would have expected a little more attention to the money involved.”

UC Clermont Professor Gregory Loving is chairman of UC's Faculty Senate.

That’s why Loving, in remarks to the board, urged trustees to take the same approach with professors as it took with Fickell. Loving said UC ranks 8th among the 12 schools it will compete against in its next athletic conference when it comes to average faculty salary. UC’s average of $94,600 is 15% below top-ranked Texas Christian University and 9% above last-ranked Oklahoma State, according to his research.

“We certainly do not begrudge athletics their due,” Loving told the WCPO 9 I-Team after the meeting. “They’ve been doing a great job and we understand the market forces here. However, when we use the argument that we have to reward excellence and compete with our peers, I just ask that the university uses that argument consistently for faculty and staff, who really do the core work of the university.”

The I-Team has been looking into the financial condition of UC’s sports programs because its rise to the top of NCAA football has come with increasing subsidies that shift funds away from academic pursuits and cost students an estimated $1,200 per year in tuition and fees.

“The faculty and academic staff who are raising this issue do have a point,” said former UC President Santa Ono. “The mission of an institution really is teaching and research and innovation.”

But Ono, who left UC in 2016 to become president of the University of British Columbia, defended UC’s use of athletic subsidies to “win the conference realignment sweepstakes.” He said UC needed to invest heavily in sports so it could join an elite conference with national media contracts that allow a handful of programs to break even on sports.

Santa Ono served as UC's president from 2012 to 2016.

“If you’re going to have an athletic program, you have to be ready to invest in it,” Ono said. “And if you want to actually address that structural deficit, you have to be in the Power Five.”

This is not a new debate. In 2009, an All-University Athletics Task Force confronted these same issues when UC was rising to prominence in the Big East Conference. Its final report said UC athletic programs were losing $3.5 million per year and had accumulated a “$24 million structural deficit.”

The panel recommended “a series of revenue-generating ideas that can be implemented to close the annual deficit … and pay back the total deficit.” Since then, UC racked up an additional $226 million in operating deficits from sports – and covered those losses with $290 million in direct and indirect subsidies from the university, according to an I-Team analysis of annual membership reports that UC sends to the NCAA.

“Even in the best-case scenario, we’ll never recoup that,” Loving said. “And no investment counselor in the world would suggest such an investment.”

Loving expects the American Association of College Professors to raise the issue of sports subsidies in upcoming contract talks with the university.

“The administration will say, ‘We don’t have the money to do that.’ But when they’re clearly spending it in other areas, they clearly do have the money. They are not making it a priority to support the faculty in this way,” he said.

Athletic Director John Cunningham told the I-Team in December that UC will reduce its reliance of subsidies when it joins the Big 12. Like other Power Five conferences, it has richer TV contracts that experts say will deliver about $20 million more in annual media revenue than UC currently receives.

In Tuesday’s meeting, Cunningham told trustees that Fickell improved the financial outlook for UC sports in the 2022 fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“Football ticket sales are at an all-time high,” he said. UC also achieved “record athletics fundraising during the first half of the fundraising year” and added a thousand new donors in the last year.

UC has raised about 25% of its $100 million goal for the “Day One Ready” campaign, which aims to prepare for Big 12 competition by building an indoor practice facility and implementing new wellness and nutrition programs for its athletes.

“In addition to the large gifts that we received,” Cunningham said, “we went from 5,800 donors to 6,800 donors in one year.”

But expenses are also rising.

The new indoor practice facility comes with a price tag of $70 million, according to UC bidding documents. Cunningham is hoping donations will cover the cost, but that’s not how it worked in the last three building projects for athletics. In 2013, for example, UC borrowed $91 million to fund the $86 million expansion of Nippert Stadium, in a deal that was projected to cost $184.4 million over 27 years, including interest.

Fickell’s new contract extension boosts his annual pay by $1.6 million a year to $5 million and increases funding for assistant coaches to $5.2 million, up from $3.85 million. That’s a 22% increase for an athletics program that spent $12.8 million on coaches’ pay in the 2021 fiscal year.

For Professor Loving, that’s reason enough to take it slow.

“Athletics is a big part of collegiate life,” Loving said. “It provides a lot of opportunities for students, faculty and staff enjoy it. It’s a boon to the community. But we just need a reasonable approach to that investment.”

Ono disagrees.

“The biggest mistake that Cincinnati could make is to get into the Power Five and not fund it at a Power Five level,” he said. “Paying Luke at $5 million makes him one of the highest paid coaches in the Big 12 and Power Five. That’s gonna keep him there. Look at the transformation that’s happened to Bearcats football because you have Luke Fickell. You want to support him with a coaching staff that’ll be first rate.”

Report: Cincinnati, Luke Fickell agree to contract extension through 2028
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