Budget raises questions about swim funding, athletics subsidy

File photo of Cherry Hall.

Jonah Phillips

The budget proposed for WKU Athletics for the coming year stands at $23.3 million spread over 15 NCAA teams – including more than $1 million allocated to the suspended swimming and diving program.

That budget calls for a university subsidy of roughly $14.4 million to the athletics department – money that will come from WKU’s general fund to pay for costs not covered by ticket sales, NCAA allocations, private funding and other sources.

The athletics budget, along with other university revenue and spending plans for 2015-16, will be considered for adoption by the WKU Board of Regents at its June 26 meeting and will cover the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The athletics subsidy – up compared to a roughly $14.05 million subsidy in 2014-15 – has prompted questions about WKU’s athletics spending, and why the university is allocating money for a swim and dive program that won’t put a single athlete in the water for the next five years.

Faculty regent Dr. Barbara Burch raised this exact question at a regents’ finance committee meeting last week, and was met with criticism from other regents.

Burch said she didn’t see the need to allocate any money for the swim and dive program other than the funds required to honor scholarship commitments for the 41 underclassmen who were on the swim and dive teams before the program was suspended for five years amid a hazing investigation, or for those who had already accepted offers to come to WKU.

“I was concerned that the budget reflected $1,030,000 for the swim and dive program,” Burch said. “Mr. Stewart [Todd Stewart, WKU’s athletic director] said that figure effectively was about $780,000 after losing NCAA subsidies, and I know that we have committed to pay the scholarships to those students who decide to stay. I think that is the right thing to do, and I do realize that it is going to take some dollars to pay those commitments… I also know a significant amount of that money is not scholarship funds.”

Any money allocated beyond those commitments, Burch noted at the committee meeting, effectively becomes discretionary money that can be used elsewhere in athletics with little outside oversight.

Instead what Burch suggested was to move those swim and dive scholarships to the university’s general scholarship fund, and eliminate the rest of the swim team budget. 

“When the athletic director said he had no idea how much of that money was going to be used for scholarships, I found that troubling,” Burch said. “I think it is not right to leave that money in in the budget to be used throughout the rest of the athletics department.”

The Herald staff reached out to the athletics department in hopes of obtaining information regarding the athletics budget, but was told Stewart and Darrell Horn, the chief financial officer for athletics, wouldn’t be available until next week.

The Herald also requested information on how many of the 41 underclassmen on the swim and dive team and the number of incoming freshmen offered sports scholarships are expected to stay at WKU, and how much money would be needed to cover those scholarships. No information was made available as of publication time.

The overall men’s and women’s swim and dive program budget for 2015-16 is proposed at $1.03 million – the fifth highest for any sport at WKU, and below only football at $6.46 million, men’s basketball at $1.8 million, women’s basketball at $1.46 million, and men’s and women’s track and field at $1.37 million.

The swimming budget accounts for a portion of the $14.4 million subsidy that WKU is allocating from the university’s operating budget to help cover the costs of the athletics programs.

Subsidies for athletics programs, which come from money that could be reallocated to the classroom, have come under increasing scrutiny over the past year since the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also a member of Conference USA, announced it was killing its football, bowling and rifle programs because it could no longer afford the escalating costs of subsidizing UAB’s Football Bowl Subdivision program.

UAB on Monday announced it was reinstating the three programs as early as Fall 2016, but was capping its institutional subsidy of athletics at $20 million per year, and was requiring that any additional money needed for the athletics programs come from private sources. Without that private support, UAB President Ray Watts said, the university would not revive football.

While WKU’s athletics subsidy is lower than that at UAB, it is projected to be $14.4 million in the coming year—$23.3 in projected athletics spending, less the nearly $8.9 million in total revenues that the athletics programs are expected to generate, according to Ann Mead, WKU’s senior vice president for finance and administration.

Burch’s questioning of the budget for the swim and dive teams comes at a time when WKU is having to cut spending throughout its academic and operational departments to balance the university’s budget for 2015-16. WKU’s proposed operating budget for the coming year is $396.6 million.

For example, WKU’s Division of Academic Affairs – which includes the university’s colleges, faculty and degree programs – is faced with cutting $5.5 million from its share of the operating budget. The proposed budget for Academic Affairs for 2015-16 is $159.8 million.

A portion of these cuts will be reallocated to fund higher than expected acceptance of academic scholarships to attend WKU.

Regarding the budget for the swim and dive programs, Stewart said at the committee meeting last week that the $1.03 million in the budget for the program could be misleading. For example, he said, an NCAA subsidy of about $250,000 will not be coming in because the program has been suspended.

Stewart said the actual budget figure will be about a quarter-million dollars less than the budgeted number.  That would bring the overall operating budget for the suspended swimming and diving program to roughly $780,000. 

[Editor’s note: A typographical error regarding the track and field budget was corrected at 12:38 p.m.]