Why ASU, UA poured $125.5M into athletics at height of pandemic, among most in the U.S.

The Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team takes on the UCLA Bruins at McKale Center on Jan. 9, 2021, in Tucson.Photo:Christian Petersen || Getty Images

Contributions from schools have likely receded, but the future appears precarious for the athletics finances at Arizona’s largest universities

By Jason Wolf & Alison Steinbach || The Arizona Republic

The stands at Arizona Stadium were empty on a cool Saturday evening in Tucson in December 2020, when the University of Arizona football team kicked off against Arizona State University in its final game of a bizarre and tumultuous season.

Both schools were fortunate to play — not only for the rivalry, but also for the TV money.

Canceled sporting events, scant ticket sales and decreased donations from alumni and boosters during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic led to unprecedented revenue shortfalls at major college athletics departments across the country. It was just one of the issues universities had to juggle amid a wider, multifaceted financial crisis.

Many responded to the economic upheaval with budget cuts. At UA, Gary Rhoades and his colleagues faced mandatory furloughs, saving the school tens of millions of dollars. The professor of higher education, who didn’t care to watch the Sun Devils rout the Wildcats that night to win the Territorial Cup on ESPN, was recently disgusted to learn where spending increased.

“We furloughed faculty and staff so that we could bail out the athletic department,” Rhoades said.

ASU, which avoided staff cuts, received more federal COVID-19 relief dollars than any college in the United States, more than twice as much as UA. Amid the turmoil, ASU and UA combined to provide their athletics departments with $125.5 million in fiscal 2021, which included the abbreviated football season, according to annual financial disclosure reports filed with the NCAA.

It was a massive increase in funding from previous years by each school, according to a review by The Arizona Republic of financial reports compiled in the Knight-Newhouse College Athletics Database, which offers a considerable but imperfect picture of major college athletics finances.

ASU gave its athletics department $57.9 million in institutional support in fiscal 2021 — 10 times more than it gave the year before and more than any other public university in the U.S., according to the database — plus another $11.3 million in student fees. 

UA provided its athletics department with $53.3 million in 2021 — much of it as a loan, according to a school spokesperson, though sports economics experts said it is unlikely to be repaid. It was nearly five times more than the school provided its athletics department the year before. UA athletics also received $3 million in student fees.

The extent to which these subsidies have continued remains unclear. 

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