Tate | It’s the cost of doing business | Sports

This began as a report on how an already pandemic-stressed University of Illinois athletic budget will be impacted by twin summer lightning strikes: (1) name-image-likeness legislation that will allow Illini scholarship athletes to seek endorsements beginning Thursday and (2) the Supreme Court’s 9-0 decision on Alston vs. NCAA.

But first, some perspective.

Taking just the last 15 years, the DIA budget has exploded from $44 million in 2006 to $118.4 million in 2019 before receding in the COVID-19 fallback.

Salaries have ballooned, athletic director Josh Whitman noting that 86 staffers, who earn at least $80,000, took voluntary pay cuts during the pandemic, when 86 was almost the exact number for Ron Guenther’s entire department almost two decades ago. Long-term mortgages never go away, most notably the $171 million State Farm Center renovation (current balance reportedly at $138 million) and two Memorial Stadium projects ($121 million in 2006-08).

Construction numbers blow up when interest is figured in, and annual debt service has soared beyond $20 million.

During the Mike Thomas regime (2011-15), athletes’ meal arrangements were expanded at considerable cost.

Then came the cost-of-attendance stipends in 2015-16, a handout of $2,900 annually to in-state men and women ($3,240 for out-of-staters) on full scholarship. There will be about 90 football players receiving those stipends this fall.

When Lovie Smith handed scholarships to just 11 in-state football players during the last four years (none in 2020), it means the DIA must carry more out-of-state tuition payments than normal.

Donations carry much of the ongoing construction boom, Whitman citing more than $200 million raised in five-plus years. But pledges necessitate more indebtedness (during project construction) until those donations are realized.

Taking its toll

Money, money, money … year after year … operating costs keep piling up … despite lost attendance revenue the past year … and now the ruling on NCAA vs. West Virginia running back Shawne Alston.

As it stands, the Supreme Court decision requires NCAA colleges to be responsible for supplying scholarship athletes with educational aids, including computers.

And athletes can take advantage of internships, in some cases requiring the department to be responsible for the cost.

Once again, as with the expansion of meals and the stipend, this will go virtually unnoticed by the Illini fandom as the DIA uses TV revenue to absorb the ever-expanding toll.

It could mean short-term borrowing arrangements with the campus, extending old loans and perhaps another request for administrative help on out-of-state (and out-of-country) tuition.

The long-term significance of “Alston” is how it sets the precedent for what comes next, and how the Supreme Court rules on the inevitable issue of players’ salaries.

A new challenge

NIL is a different animal.

Athletes will soon be free to earn money within various limits, and it’ll become a law when Congress someday weaves around to it. Meanwhile, the NCAA is poised to beat Thursday’s deadline with temporary “athlete-friendly” legislation that would put all the states on semi-equal footing. This state is ahead of the game with the General Assembly putting a bill on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk for his signature.

Whitman’s staff has been working for months to set a framework for Illini athletes.

But there will be restrictions.

They can’t represent Adidas, for example, because the UI is a “Nike school.” They can’t front for Pepsi-Cola because the UI has a deal with Coca-Cola. They can’t sign a deal involving gambling or booze … or anything that would bring disrespect to the program. Every arrangement will be closely monitored.

Costs to the DIA are (1) the hours spent by Brian Russell and his watchdog aides and (2) loss of income from businesses that use their advertising budgets to pay players rather than donate to Whitman’s department.

Again, the DIA will survive the summer storm.

But back to “Alston.” The next Supreme Court ruling could produce an earthquake when the argument becomes whether the athletes who produce the revenue in football and basketball deserve a “fairer share” of TV and gate receipts.

What will this mean to the non-revenue sports, which have operated on football-basketball income for decades?

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