hile most fans were all caught up in deflated footballs, trade speculation and a long Rockies losing streak, something pretty important happened this week at Colorado State.
New CSU director of athletics Joe Parker announced that the school had chosen to make the large financial commitment – mandated in January by the “Power 5” conference schools – to begin paying all student-athletes – within the framework of an athletic scholarship – an additional chunk of cash. It will amount to up to $2,400 for in-state student athletes and more than $3,000 for those from outside the borders. Student-athletes on partial scholarships (only football, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and women’s tennis offer full rides) will receive a pro-rated percentage of the stipend.
“For decades, a full scholarship has been defined as tuition, room, board, books and fees,” said Parker in a statement released by the school. “The demands to balance academics and athletics have grown over that period. Most of our students simply do not have time to engage in part-time or summer employment to supplement the costs of their education. The new stipend is important and helps to address the incidental expenses associated with attending CSU.”
While non-Power 5 schools are not expressly directed to add the cost of attendance stipend to athletic scholarships like the bigger conference schools are, many have stepped up and pledged to do so – schools like Mountain West rivals Wyoming, Utah State, New Mexico, Boise State and regional recruiting rival BYU, which is set to begin paying football players an additional $4,500 per school year. That’s more than every Pac-12 school.
Many of these schools, CSU included, were backed into a corner. Not getting on board with the additional payment within athletic scholarships would be seen by most observers as something of a death sentence for programs that otherwise have aspirations of continuing to compete for quality recruits. For instance, should CSU have chosen not to add the extra benefit, they would have had a very hard time competing for recruits in any sport with the University of Colorado, which jumped on board with the COA decision and pledged to comply immediately (CU student-athletes will reportedly be receiving more than $3,200 per school year starting in August).
Adding as much as $1 million a year to your expense line is a risky money move for a non-Power 5 school when you play in a conference without a fat TV contract. You’re counting on attendance and booster support to make up the difference. These schools are making the effort to stay in the hunt on a playing field that is strongly tilted toward the Power 5.
Is it a smart business decision? It’s easy to see a smaller school having a couple down years in football and suddenly, without the resources of the big guys, being unable to keep up the additional payments. What if they want to fire a coach with a guaranteed contract? How can they buy him or her out?
Parker was upfront about letting people know that CSU would initially fund the stipend for the next three to five years with the dollars it’s recouping from the departure of former head football coach Jim McElwain. When McElwain left CSU in December to take over at Florida, he and his new school had to ante up about $7 million to break his contract. So in essence, McElwain is continuing to help his former school build a better football program, at least for now. So CSU has that going for it at the moment, which is nice.
But what happens after that? With costs certain to go up over that time period, CSU is going to need more than a coach’s buy-out to balance the budget starting around 2020. Rams supporters are hoping that traditional revenues not only grow, but take a quantum leap when the new on-campus stadium opens in 2016. That could happen if the venue is truly multi-use and becomes a revenue stream even during the offseason.
A lot of Rams fans also believe that somehow, some way, CSU will find itself in the Big 12 conference by that point, which would mean a big boost in exposure and revenue. That’s iffy, to say the least. While the stadium is now a reality (thankfully) membership in the Big 12 remains a pipe dream at the moment. So much has to go right for CSU to even be considered; just assuming because of CSU’s presence in the Denver TV market that the Big 12 will come calling is foolish speculation. There are multiple candidates to join that conference (which has stated it has no plans to expand, by the way) and many have stronger pedigrees than Colorado State.
What other schools have to offer is one of many factors that CSU has no control over. Yet what the program does have (some) control over must improve by leaps and bounds for the school to even be considered by a “power” conference. To start with, attendance at both football and men’s basketball needs to get a whole lot better. Does anyone think the Big 12 TV people will want to televise a CSU game with all those fans dressed as empty seats? Yes, Joe Parker came from Big 12 member Texas Tech. Yes, he knows the landscape. But unless he can produce a lot more sellouts, it won’t matter.
Which takes us back to the gamble that the cost of attendance stipend truly is. It’s a far, far bigger gamble than building a new stadium. Building a new facility is a calculated risk, but it’s easy to project a very nice reward. Going all in on the cost of attendance stipend is a bold move, but a far bigger gamble. It’s up to CSU supporters to make it pay off.