MYNORTHWEST NEWS

Lawmakers hear dire circumstances of WSU being ‘Couged’ by ex-Pac-12 schools

Feb 21, 2024, 4:33 PM | Updated: Feb 22, 2024, 12:08 pm

Image: The Washington State Cougars take the field against the Oregon State Beavers at Martin Stadi...

The Washington State Cougars take the field against the Oregon State Beavers at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Washington. (Photo: William Mancebo, Getty Images)

(Photo: William Mancebo, Getty Images)

Even though the Pac-12 Conference hasn’t officially disintegrated yet, the repercussions for Washington State University (WSU) could be dire, school officials told state lawmakers Tuesday.

WSU’s athletics program was already facing a $100 million deficit. However, despite the shortfall and the disintegration of the conference due to the departures of the University of Washington (UW) and the University of Oregon (UO), WSU’s chances of joining another conference remain unaffected. The urgency lies in finding the best location for WSU, especially since the upcoming season is the last for the old Pac-12.

Money plays a pivotal role in college sports. The Pac-12 disbanded primarily due to insufficient television revenue. Eight out of the twelve schools decided they could earn more by playing in other conferences.

Representatives of both the UW and WSU answered questions by state lawmakers on Wednesday that centered primarily on past, current, and future revenue generated by the schools’ football teams.

Some funding comes from state legislature

The state legislature is the ultimate authority since both schools receive state funding.

There were hints by lawmakers of using some of the UW’s guaranteed $30 million it will receive in its first year with the Big 10 to help out WSU’s operating debt in its athletic department.

There was also talk of reallocating excess revenue generated by WSU on-campus housing, dining halls, and parking tickets to make up for revenue lost because of the Pac-12 realignment.

The Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee held a work session regarding the impacts of the UW leaving the Pac-12 Conference and joining the Big 10 Conference.

“We are often thought of as the scrappy underdog, and that’s no accident. The underdog is who we were built to serve,” WSU’s Director of State Relations, Chris Mulick, told the committee.

Among the Pac-12 schools, only Oregon collected more overall revenue last year from all sports to cover its athletic department expenses, according to a staff presentation to the committee.

The UW was just shy of covering all of its athletic department expenses and had to dip into its reserves.

Total intercollegiate revenue brought in by UW was just short of $150 million, while WSU was roughly $80 million.

UW and WSU were ranked 25th and 53rd among all the country’s schools.

Ohio State was ranked first, bringing in $250 million.

Lost revenue the focus of conversations

How WSU will make up the lost revenue was a key discussion point.

There were hints by lawmakers of using some of the UW’s guaranteed $30 million it will receive in its first year with the Big 10 to help out WSU’s operating debt in its athletic department.

There was also talk of reallocating excess revenue generated by WSU on-campus housing, dining halls, and parking tickets to make up for revenue lost because of the Pac-12 realignment.

To understand the implications of the realignment, lawmakers were told in detail about media rights deals that led to the implosion of the conference.

Trouble began brewing shortly after the Pac-12 inked a billion-dollar deal with ESPN for top-tier media rights until 2024.

Despite this lucrative deal, the conference faced challenges, particularly with the failure to secure a deal with DirecTV for the Pac-12 Network, impacting its reach and revenue potential.

Pac-12 schools were told to expect $20 million annually from the Pac-12 Network, but that never materialized.

“Those numbers were never realized and feel at least 30% below projections for the last 10 years,” says committee staff member Alicia Kinne-Clawson. who presented a report to the committee.

Series of departures made financial situation even worse

The situation worsened when the University of Southern California and the University of California – Los Angeles, two powerhouse institutions within the conference, faced an uncertain future in TV revenue, triggering a series of departures. Colorado announced its plans to exit the Pac-12 and rejoin the Big 12.

Subsequently, five of the nine remaining schools announced their intention to leave the Pac-12, leaving only WSU and Oregon State University (OSU) behind.

“A primary driver in the University of Washington’s decision to join the Big 10 was to maintain department operations without charging mandatory student fees or seeking state funds,” UW Director of State Relations Joe Dacca told lawmakers.

Kinne-Clawson said schools do have the option to tap into tuition to pay for costs related to intercollegiate athletics.

The expectation is that UW and WSU should not have to because of the amount of media money the schools receive because of their football and basketball programs.

“WSU has not used any tuition to support intercollegiate athletics. We could, but we haven’t,” WSU’s Mulick told the committee.

Before the University of California’s departure for the Atlantic Coast Conference, the UC Board of Regents was considering a plan to require UCLA to compensate Cal for leaving the Pac-12 to make up for Cal’s lost TV revenue.

Senator Liz Lovelett (D-Anacortes) asked if a similar scenario could occur with UW paying WSU.

“Do we know of any other states that have introduced policy or legislative efficacy in order to hold harmless the institution who didn’t make the choice to pull out?” Lovelett asked.

She was told by Kinne-Clawson that the UCLA and Cal example was the only one she knew about.

Legal action was taken against remaining member schools

WSU took legal action, arguing that only WSU and OSU, as the remaining Pac-12 members, had the authority to decide the conference’s future, including its financial reserves and liabilities.

The courts sided with WSU, leading to negotiations and a settlement in December between WSU, OSU, and the departing schools, though details are still being finalized.
WSU’s Miller says the school relies on money from that settlement to offset its athletic department’s operational debt.

“I can’t tell you how, and I can’t tell what our future is going to look like, but I can tell you we are going to fight our way through this,” Mulick said.

He also suggested the athletic department will be forced to cut expenses and that could include “academic support” student athletes receive.

“Maybe it is that they end up supporting that looks like the student body in mass gets,” he said.

For at least the next two years, WSU will play football in the Mountain West Conference and basketball in the West Coast Conference.

As college sports revenue surges, institutions are under pressure to remain competitive, leading to an “arms race” in athletic programs.

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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Lawmakers hear dire circumstances of WSU being ‘Couged’ by ex-Pac-12 schools