Stony Brook tacks on fees like a coked-up Ticketmaster.
Every semester’s tuition bill comes with no fewer than eight different fees, from USG’s “Undergraduate Activity Fee” to the cryptically named “Academic Excellence Fee.” However, the largest fee is the “Intercollegiate Athletic Fee,” coming in at $270.25 for undergraduates. Most people pay these fees like the rest of their tuition: somewhat begrudgingly, but believing that this happens at every school. However, while every school has its fees, Stony Brook’s “Intercollegiate Athletic Fee” is far from standard.
The numbers behind the Stony Brook Athletics program’s funding are troubling. The Huffington Post ran a comprehensive study in November of 2015 of the funding of athletic programs at public universities, scoring them on the percentage of income from 2010 to 2014 that is subsidized.
Stony Brook, to put it lightly, scored poorly. 77 percent of Stony Brook’s athletics budget came from subsidies, amounting to a staggering $98 million over those five years. 38 percent of those subsidies come directly from student fees, while 33 percent come from institutional support. On a yearly basis, nearly $7.6 million come just from student fees. Meanwhile, only one percent of revenue comes from ticket sales, meaning it would take about thirty years of ticket sales to match one year of the money being taken from students. Stony Brook is one of the highest subsidized schools in the nation. Over that five year period, we ranked fifteenth in terms of subsidies received out of all public colleges, and eighth among those with more than 76 percent subsidized income.
To be fair, this is definitely a SUNY problem as much as it is a Stony Brook problem. Albany, Buffalo and Binghamton are all over 75 percent subsidized, with the burden heavily shouldered by the students. Albany is actually even more subsidized than Stony Brook, with 82 percent of its budgets coming from external support, amounting to nearly $69 million over five years. SUNY’s official policy regarding the Intercollegiate Athletic Fee provides no cap, only requiring approval from the chancellor and an undergraduate referendum. In contrast, SUNY policies explicitly limits the Student Activity Fee to $250.00 annually.
The most common defense of these numbers is the old adage, “You have to spend money to make money.” Many top-tier schools are revenue powerhouses, with many being mostly self sufficient and some making huge amounts of money for their schools while raising their national profiles. While it is incredibly doubtful that Stony Brook Athletics could reach the level of Michigan, Alabama or LSU, there are certainly programs with minimal subsidizing that the Seawolves could model and one day grow into.
The issue for Stony Brook is growth and, more importantly, the rate of growth. The path to higher levels of sports notoriety is strewn with colleges that tried to grow too big too fast, and Stony Brook looks much more similar to them than schools with moderate national profiles and minimal subsidies.
Shawn Heilbron, Stony Brook’s athletic director, pointed to Old Dominion as a school that has made the jump from the CAA that Stony Brook should follow, one that went from founding a football program in 2009, to the Colonial Athletic Association in 2011 and Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Conference USA in 2014. However, Old Dominion students are put in a worse position than Stony Brook students are now, with only nine percent of athletic income coming from ticket sales and 71 percent coming straight from student fees, amounting to $26 million a year.
One of the big justifications of the fee is that it allows students free entry to games. Season tickets for men’s basketball go for $150, while women’s basketball costs $65. General admission to men’s lacrosse is $10, while for football it was at most $20 in 2015. Compare that to the $540 we pay a year, and you can see how that argument doesn’t hold up.
The idea that money will follow spending is simply misguided. According to Huffington Post, of the 127 schools where at least half of the income in 2010 was subsidized, only five were able to boost outside revenues by more than fifty percent. However, Heilbron believes that Stony Brook will be able to fill a 25,000 person stadium consistently, while nearby Hofstra University had to shutter its football program after only averaging 5,000 people in attendance per game. As Joel Maxcy, a Drexel University economist, has said on the subject of college sports spending, “There’s no one to put the brakes on them. There’s no one to say, ‘No, this is not a sound investment.’”
It’s not that Stony Brook shouldn’t spend money on an athletics program, or that it shouldn’t dream of growth. However, Stony Brook needs to focus on slower, consistent growth rather than exploiting student’s wallets in order to pursue these program’s dreams, no matter how outlandish. Because, to be totally frank, our sports teams aren’t good enough right now. Our basketball team, as good as it’s looking this year, has never made the NCAA tournament, and our football team has had losing records in the past two seasons. Athletics is dreaming of filling up a 25,000 person stadium when they aren’t even filling up the stadium they have.
Look, I love Stony Brook sports, but I’m a student as well as a fan, and my money matters to me. As much as I would want Stony Brook to have an elite program, the numbers simply don’t support that happening quickly.
Fan bases and alumni networks take time to develop, and until then, students will be footing the majority of the bill racked up in the name of growth. There are plenty of cautionary tales of schools that grew too fast, like Georgia State or Old Dominion, and I would hate for future students at Stony Brook to have to pay the price for athletics being a proverbial Icarus — trying to fly too high. I’m willing to help contribute to Stony Brook Athletics becoming better every year, but I’m also willing to wait for them to become the best they can be.