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How to get taxpayer money for your favorite college football team

Uncertainty surrounding enhanced benefits for athletes enabled one politician to land public money for his school's team.

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When the NCAA recently allowed schools to provide additional cost-of-attendance scholarship funds to players, many FBS programs pledged to participate. Nearly every power school voted in favor, and even FCS Liberty plans to cover COA for athletes.

But it's led to concerns over how to define that dollar amount -- each school's number is different, but each is a few thousand per player -- and how to pay it.

Utah State has a solution for the latter: have taxpayers help.

"I sat down with one of our main donors and talked to him about the issue, that if we can’t find a way to fund cost of attendance, that all the investment that he and so many others have made to our program, and all the progress we’ve made … was going to slip away and erode," former Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes, who left for the same job at Pittsburgh, said. "And the notion of not funding this program in many ways would put us in the position of not being relevant."

Barnes reached out to Utah state senator Lyle Hillyard, who suggested $1.5 million in state money. The idea was approved.

USU will bring in state money to cover the new cost despite its $2.4 million Nike contract and its Mountain West Conference getting a reported $20 million revenue boost from the first year of the College Football Playoff.

"The speaker of the house came to me and said, 'I’ve been in sports all my life, and I like the underdog,'" Hillyard said.

Hillyard is a USU graduate, resident of the school's town, and Aggies sports fan.


Taxpayer money does not typically support athletic departments. Any public money that does work its way into sports is rarely as directly earmarked as in the USU case. Most FBS departments claim they lose money, although that is usually accounting. Even departments that are "subsidized" by schools are rarely subsidized by taxpayers.

Hillyard pitched the "Utah Wellness Program" not as a competitive boost -- even though he said, "If we don't have the athletes, we won't have the shot to get into the special bowl games like Boise State did" -- but as an economic service to the town of Logan. The idea is that without it, Utah State would be worse at football, and a bad team would hurt development.

"If you were to take Utah State out of our community, it would basically collapse into a small farming community," Hillyard said.

Utah State plays in a stadium with a capacity of 25,513 and typically hosts six games a season. In 2014, when Utah State won 10 games, the Aggies averaged 20,467 fans. In 2009, when Utah State won four games, they averaged 15,791.

The difference between a contending Utah State and a bad Utah State seems to be a few thousand fans, six days a year. It's difficult to envision crowds much beyond 20,000. Boise State, a more successful program in a metro twice as big, averages about 35,000.

Economists suggest further skepticism. Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at the University of Michigan, says while "it is inarguable that within a few blocks [of the stadium] you'll have an effect," results are questionable for metro areas.

When asked about the impact of stadiums, Holy Cross professor Victor Matheson said, "Take whatever the boosters tell you and then just move the decimal point one space to the left, and that's what you'll get out."

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY

It could be argued that a successful team could boost student applications, as happens elsewhere, but how much of a difference would that money make?


Between 2009 and 2013, Utah State increased its recruiting spending by 174 percent to a total of $206,227, growing that budget faster than most of its counterparts, according to USA Today.

That $1.5 million in tax money will not technically go toward recruiting, but toward scholarship boosts. USU reportedly plans to offer a $4,000 increase per athlete, which could be on the higher end nationally. But if paying for COA were to eat into the recruiting budget, would that've meant USU couldn't compete with other programs having to pay the same thing?

"We do get recruits that Pac-12 schools get," Barnes said. "Not that many, but we do get them. There are several student-athletes that because of where our program sits, that we do win the battle with. When we look at who we compete against, absolutely we go toe-to-toe with some Pac-12 schools."

Non-powers like Utah State do occasionally compete with powers for athletes, but rarely for three-star recruits, let alone blue chips.

Since 2008, Utah State finished in the top half of its conference's 247Sports Composite recruiting rankings just once. Over the last three seasons, only five of Utah State's 63 signees claimed more than one offer from among Boise State, BYU and any power-conference program, per 247Sports.

Yet the program has made four bowl games in a row and has become an elite among mid-majors. Utah State's run has been an argument that you can be successful without the best recruiting.


Could other programs try this?

Wyoming legislators didn't sell their similar plan as stimulus, but they did approve $4 million to "enhance the competitiveness of UW's intercollegiate athletics," including COA costs. That might make more sense, considering UW is the state's only NCAA institution, whereas Utah has six in Division I alone, five of whom don't get deals like USU's.

Per the Salt Lake Tribune, Rep. Hillyard said Nevada and New Mexico considered similar bills. Calls and emails to legislators on budget and education committees in those states were not returned.

Hawaii, an MWC school with one of the more financially troubled departments, requested $6 million in state assistance, but for women's sports and travel, rather than COA or recruiting. According to Idaho lawmakers, not even the University of Idaho is pushing for state money in order to take on the new expense, despite ranking below some FCS and non-football schools in revenue.

There is little evidence that funding a COA award will make or break a program's ability to recruit talent, and little evidence that boosting a non-power football program will lead to community economic gains worth state investment.

In Logan, one super fan legislator got a bonus for his team, in part because of the mystery surrounding the financials of college athletics.