Department of Higher Earning

Other schools do the math as Metro State calculates the cost of subtracting athletics.

In 1995, Joe Arcese, an administrator for a large urban college, had an idea. Enrollment was flagging, and the school had such low visibility that many potential students never even applied, because they didn't think it was a genuine academic institution.

"Back in the mid-'90s, a lot of people thought it was a two-year college," Arcese recalls. So with the blessing of the college president, he embarked on an ambitious campaign to raise the school's profile with sports.

"If we were getting our name in the paper a lot through our athletic programs, as a big-time four-year institution, it would increase our reputation," Arcese says. "And I thought that if we got good athletes, they'd bring their friends," thereby boosting enrollment.

Christopher Smith

The plan began with the hiring of top coaches at top dollar. The first year, Arcese brought in a successful professional basketball coach who'd been working in Australia. Today, his $125,000 annual salary -- plus a car -- makes him one of the highest-paid Division II men's basketball coaches in the country.

Next, Arcese recruited one of the best women's volleyball coaches in the country. When she left several years later to become the college's athletic director, another coach was hired; her current $52,000 yearly salary is tops in the conference. The school soon added a new soccer coach, too, as well as new women's basketball and tennis leaders.

The new coaches started recruiting talented athletes. But there was still something missing: A top-quality sports program with designs on national success needed the best facilities. And so the college signed on to an industrious plan to install new athletic digs.

The old baseball diamond, which didn't even have a scoreboard, was replaced. New soccer fields were built from the ground up. The old gymnasium still sported a soft tartan floor. It was ripped up and replaced with shiny hardwood.

Arcese's free-spending plan soon began to pay dividends. In 2000, and again in 2002, the men's basketball team won national Division II titles. "We were getting front-page articles in the paper almost every day," he remembers. The women's volleyball team is currently ranked No. 7 nationally in its division; the women's soccer team is the No. 1 ranked Division II team in the country.

The school, of course, is Metropolitan State College, home of the Roadrunners. Arcese retired last year, but not before proclaiming the strategy to make his school a higher-profile institution through sports a success. "We paid for it," he says, "but it worked."

But that very program could now be teetering on extinction. At a meeting of the college's board of trustees last month, several boardmembers, noting the high cost of maintaining the school's jocks, proposed axing the entire department. Why is Metro spending all that money on sports, they wondered, when it could be directed toward new humanities professors or student scholarships?

For the moment, the proposal is little more than a talking point. Metro's trustees are also scouring the rest of the school's budget and curriculum for money-saving cuts and restructurings. Still, with the early signing period for student-athletes just around the corner, it is the idea of ditching one of the state's most successful sports programs that has caused the biggest ruckus.

College sports have become such an integral part of the athletic landscape that nobody really questions why they exist anymore. The Metro dispute will probably dissolve; after all, there's not that much money at stake. But it's still worth asking: Why play games at all?

At first blush, funding for public-university athletics doesn't make much logical sense. That is, the bigger a university's sports program is, the less money it typically needs from taxpayers.

The University of Colorado at Boulder, for example, spends a whopping $36.5 million a year to maintain its Division I intercollegiate sports program. Yet the state picks up only about $535,000 of that total; another $1.4 million comes from student fees. The rest of the program supports itself.

The reason is CU's size and success. Fielding a football team can be as expensive as paying for a standing army. If the gridders are good enough, however, they pay their own way. Through TV deals and sold-out dates at Folsom Field, the (until recently) competitive Buffs football team manages to contribute about $18.5 million in annual revenue to the university's athletic program. The Buffs basketball squad adds another $2.2 million.

As with business successes, the rich get richer, and athletic accomplishment tends to build on itself. Last year, CU's athletic program attracted about $8 million in private contributions, much of it from proud alumni and giant corporate sponsors such as Nike.

Compare that with Colorado State University, which has the state's second-largest athletic department. While the Rams have had some success building a successful football program, the squad is still mostly a regional phenomenon. Other sports are even lesser known outside of Fort Collins. As a result, nearly one-third of CSU's $18 million annual athletic budget must be subsidized by student fees and taxpayers.

Generally speaking, the proportion of school support increases as the programs decrease in size. The University of Northern Colorado, whose Bears won Division II football titles in 1996 and 1997, spends about $4 million a year on its jocks. A little more than half of that comes from state coffers and student fees. Athletes who attend tiny Adams State, in Alamosa, are subsidized even more. With the exception of about $300,000, the school's $1.7 million intercollegiate athletic budget is supported entirely by taxpayers and student fees.

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