Sports bring benefits to university, officials say
HUNTINGTON -- While student fees and direct university support of the athletic department's budget nearly doubled since 2006, officials across Marshall University's administration say it's not just a dollars-and-cents issue.
Matt Turner, chief of staff for MU, said although $11.68 million of the $26.8 million budget during the 2011-2012 fiscal year did come as institutional support, it can be viewed as an investment in the community as a whole.
"In this community, athletics has an incredible economic impact," Turner said. "So many businesses who function as a side benefit of athletics."
He also said the university's financial hardship is not the fault of athletics, pointing to decreasing state appropriations to the tune of $5.11 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
Marshall athletics, he said, is viewed much differently than other college programs because of the 1970 plane crash that killed most of the football team and coaching staff, along with supporters.
The story is inextricably linked to Marshall, and football plays a large role in what lures some students to Huntington.
"Take a step back and think of where (you) are," Turner said. "Marshall University and the Huntington community is connected like nowhere else. The entire fabric is how we recovered from an athletic tragedy. It's much, much bigger than dollars and cents."
Athletics -- because of the plane crash, football success in the 1990s and early 2000s with Chad Pennington, Randy Moss and Byron Leftwich, and the "We Are Marshall" movie -- also has played a role in recruiting non student-athletes to Huntington.
And athletics opens doors to students in a number of academic programs, such as marketing, broadcast and print journalism and the athletic training and sports management programs in the College of Health Professions. In addition, there are the 300 members of the Marching Thunder who perform at all the home football games and some away games and play in the pep band at basketball games.
Benefits to community
David Steele, the associate athletics director, also pointed out that football and basketball serve the community through fundraising partnerships. United Way of the River Cities works the ACF parking lot during football games and receives a portion of the revenue.
And concessions at those games are manned by fundraising organizations, who also receive a portion of the proceeds.
Turner said there is value that can't be quantified, noting that during nationally televised football games Marshall gets at least one free 30- or 60-second TV spot that is not within the university's marketing budget if it had to pay for it. And those televised games give exposure to Marshall.
Those televised games also generate revenue for the athletic department, $1.3 million last season, Steele said. And that's a direct correlation of being in Conference USA, as opposed to the Mid-American Conference, which netted $38,000 in television revenue during the final year in 2005.
He said travel expenses did increase by about $550,000 by making the conference jump, which still allows for a profit after the increase in TV revenue.
"In addition, the revenue from bowls allows those games to be profitable, as we experienced in 2009 and 2011," said Steele, noting that C-USA covers travel expenses for the team, band and cheerleaders. "In the MAC, we paid bowl assessments in order to get the bowl opportunities plus had to cover expenses. It would cost the department to go to bowl games."
Athletic Director Mike Hamrick also talked about the impact student-athletes have on retention and tuition dollars. MU gives out about 210 scholarships a year (NCAA requires Division I schools to give out 200), but some are out-of-state students who receive partial scholarships and pay the rest of their tuition.
Hamrick, Steele and Turner all also noted that student-athletes at Marshall graduate at higher rates than the rest of the institution at about 69 percent, compared with about 45 percent for the general student body. About half make the dean's list every semester, while others earn achievements beyond the field or court.
In April, 30 student-athletes earned the C-USA Commissioner's Academic Medal, which was eighth most in the conference out of 12 schools. Students had to maintain a grade point average of at least 3.75 during the 2012-13 academic year. The women's soccer team led Marshall with seven honorees, followed by four on both the women's cross country team and women's track and field team.
However, Dallas Brozik, a professor in the College of Business, is somewhat critical of the accolades given for academic performance of athletes, saying they have an unfair advantage to the rest of the student body.
"The graduation rate of the student-athletes is indeed higher than the average student, but they are provided with a tremendous support system of tutors and (graduate assistants)," Brozik said. "They are in a protected environment where they need to worry about nothing as long as they play the game. Real students have to worry about money and kids and keeping their jobs and student loans.
"There can be no fair comparison of the graduation rates of the two groups since the support systems are so different," he added. "I expect that if the average students were given the same support as the student-athletes, their graduation rate would be even higher since they would not be forced to be distracted by the practice and the games."
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