The Pac-12 TV deal is even more significant, even though Utah will only get partial payouts until the 2014 season. The league’s 12-year TV deal with ESPN and Fox is worth a reported $3 billion, which breaks down to about $250 million a year for the conference, or $21 million or so per year for each school come 2014. Compare that to the roughly $1.2 million the school got under the Mountain West’s broadcast deal, and it’s not hard to see why Utah jumped at the chance to run toward the Pacific Ocean powers.
The irony, though, is that while the school will receive an influx of money not imaginable in its Mountain West days, the U will have to greatly increase how much money it spends to be competitive with the bigger schools in the Pac-12. Facilities will need to be upgraded—the U’s football stadium is second-smallest in the league, and will likely have to be expanded at some point—and new varsity teams might be created in the future to compete in, say, lacrosse or men’s volleyball. Those new sports’ formations come at a cost of $500,000 to $1 million per sport, according to Hill, and the school is required to keep gender equity in what is offered, so the costs add up quickly. New fundraising efforts across the board—for research and academics, new and improved campus buildings and infrastructure, and the athletic department—will be part of the program for the indefinite future.
That includes dinging students and fans—not just big-money alumni—for more cash. Football season-ticket holders noticed a significant jump in ticket prices—most by 20 percent over the cost during the final Mountain West year in 2010—but few balked at the increase; more than 98 percent of 2010 season-ticket holders renewed for the inaugural Pac-12 season.
Student fees for athletics jumped, as well, with the school approving a nearly 8 percent increase for this academic year, from roughly $150 to $162. And students can probably expect to keep paying more in fees and tuition, despite a recent legislative audit that showed the U does a poor job accounting for $27.4 million in student fees collected each year. According to a Salt Lake Tribune story on the audit, U student fees have jumped 69 percent in the past decade to $912 per year for a full-time student, roughly $162 of which is dedicated to supporting athletic programs. Tuition has doubled in the same time period—another upward spiral unlikely to change any time soon.
It’s Academic, Watson
While most focus on football when they consider the U’s move to the Pac-12, Rudd has been preaching the academic benefits for the school for months, via a handy PowerPoint presentation.
At a recent lunch discussion at the campus’ Alumni House, the Princeton grad showed how the change of conferences—admittedly football-driven—can benefit the school in other areas, starting with attracting potential students who wouldn’t have thought of applying to the U.
“When you look at the shift from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, the focus of the exposure is enormous,” Rudd said. “The immediate shift in the brand is significant, and it’s experienced in many different ways across the university.”
As unsavory as it might be to think of a school as a “brand,” Rudd said, make no mistake about it: Students are “very much consumers of higher education. They’re paying to get an experience, and that experience is a very broad experience.”
In other words, while a student might look at a particular academic discipline as the most important reason to pick a school—whether in computer science or ballet—they also look at what other kinds of experiences they’ll be able to take advantage of outside the classroom. And the environment created by a big-time athletic department goes a long way toward attracting applicants, even those who don’t care about sports.
“Where do we rally around things and where do we tailgate [on a college campus]?” Rudd asked, rhetorically. “At athletic events.”
Even the Ivy League, a group of schools recognized as some of the best in the world, Rudd notes, is based around sports. The Ivy League is an athletic affiliation, no more and no less, yet the conference has managed to build a “brand” based on academics at Harvard, Yale, et al., rather than on its forgettable football teams.
Rudd compares the U’s move to Penn State University’s change in 1990 from being an athletic independent to being a member of the Big Ten conference. When Penn State made the switch, the school’s graduation rate was 57 percent, roughly what Utah’s grad rate was in 2010, and by 2009, PSU’s had increased to 85 percent. The amount of research activity at Penn State likewise rose, from about $380 million in 1990 to $780 million in 2009. Rudd attributes that rise to the greater competition encountered by joining the research-heavy Big Ten.
When it comes to research activity, the U finds itself in a similar position entering its new conference. The average Pac-12 research budget in 2009 was $454 million, while the average for the Mountain West was $106 million. Utah’s $451 million or so made it tops in the Mountain West, but lands it firmly in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12, where schools like Stanford, UCLA and the University of Washington regularly do more than $1 billion annually in research activity.
Rudd contends that as the U strives to keep up with its Pac-12 peers, it will see rises across the board in fundraising, student applicants, faculty and staff pay and academic prestige.
“The larger the average research budget, the more likely you are to have an academic impact, so the more likely you are to be ranked highly and recognized nationally,” Rudd said. “And the more likely you are to get a higher number of student applicants, the greater the performance of your students and the greater the impact of the university from an academic perspective.”
While it’s natural to assume that as the U’s academic reputation increases, tuition will as well, Rudd believes those increases will be offset by more financial aid. Even though the U’s graduation rate sits at 57 percent, that number is skewed because “80 percent of our students work 20 hours or more a week.”
“The competitiveness of the national application pool increases, but there will also be greater resources for students, so they’ll have to work less,” Rudd said, noting that the Pac-12 move should increase the number of scholarships and grants available, thanks to better endowment support.
Kenneth Morley, a 21-year-old senior in atmospheric sciences, believes the move to the Pac-12 will make his degree more valuable, saying that he had “a lot of pride in [Utah] being able to be accepted in such a prestigious group.”
“And if tuition goes up and it’s harder to get in, that’s a good thing”—making his eventual degree that much more meaningful, Morley said.
A Bumpy Entry
The sunny financial and academic hopes of the Pac-12 move are long-term predictions that will take years to prove true or false. The immediate reality of joining the “big boys,” athletically speaking, came clear just a few games into the season this fall.
After an up-and-down first few games, including an exciting, close loss in the USC Pac-12 opener and a blowout win against in-state rival BYU, Utah’s starting quarterback Jordan Wynn was lost for the season with a shoulder injury in the team’s Pac-12 home opener against Washington.