Cost of play: How Mercyhurst funds its varsity sports

Editor’s note: Several numbers, including the total expenses for 2009-10 at Mercyhurst, were incorrectly reported in the original story. Those numbers have been remedied and now accurately reflect the total spent in 2009-10. We sincerely apologize for the initial inaccuracies.

There’s little doubt that the college boasts some talented and dedicated athletes. Two of the athletic department’s most visible programs, football and women’s hockey, have made or could make history during the current school year.

The football team went on an unprecedented run to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship and the NCAA playoffs in October and November, while the national attention the women’s hockey program garners has enabled Mercyhurst to be selected as this spring’s host school of the women’s Frozen Four Tournament.

The successes of these and other programs bring the college national and regional recognition and give the college and Erie community a sense of pride.

But these successes also come at a cost.

Mercyhurst reported $112,332,187 in total expenses in its 2009-10 Accountant’s Report and Financial Statement. From that sum, more than $10.8 million was spent on the school’s 24 varsity sports, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

That accounts for more than nine percent of the college’s annual operating budget.

The expenditures include “game-day operating expenses” per team, recruiting money, sports related student aid and coaches’ salaries.

Gannon University, Mercyhurst’s crosstown Division II rival, spent $5.8 million on athletics in 2008-09, the most recent year with numbers available at publication time. Edinboro University capped its athletic expenses at $5.3 million in 2009-10.

With respective operating budgets of $93.6 million and $106.8 million at Gannon and Edinboro, the two area universities each spent four to five percent less on athletics than Mercyhurst during the past two years.

Although the ratio of student athletes at the three schools is unequal, with 569 student athletes at Mercyhurst, 347 at Edinboro and 282 at Gannon, Mercyhurst still spends significantly more money on its sports teams.

The Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) of 1994 requires all co-educational colleges that receive federal student aid to submit annual financial athletics data.

It provides data on total athletic spending, athlete scholarship totals by team, coaching salaries by team and “game-day expenses.”

While the U.S. Department of Education requires that these numbers be made publicly available, the information is generally not common knowledge.

But with tuition increasing every year, students have the opportunity to know that a substantial proportion of their money flows toward the west end of campus.

“Institutions like Mercyhurst, which derive most of their revenue from student tuition, must pass most of their expense increases to their students in the form of tuition increases,” Mercyhurst’s website says on its page of frequently asked questions about tuition and fees.

The question remains: Should Mercyhurst inform its current and prospective paying customers how much of their tuition money goes to funding athletics?

“I don’t mind that they spend that much money,” said senior Angela Mills. “But we should be told.”

“If they give that much to athletes, other (non-athletes) should get equal (non-athletic) benefits.” Mills said.

But who provides this money? Where does it come from? At some colleges and universities, some of that money comes from a specific athletic fee, but Mercyhurst has no such fee.

A look at the tuition billing breakdown for the current school year provided little information.

Each student pays five fees in addition to tuition—green energy, registration, technology, student government and a building assessment fee—totaling $1,698.

The five fees are distinctly itemized and available on the college’s website. The other $24,648 students pay in general tuition is not broken down.

A more comprehensive breakdown of costs might allow students to see where their money goes.

“There is no (athletic) fee per se,” said Director of Athletics Joe Kimball.

This means that all of the money it takes to operate the 24 varsity sports teams offered at Mercyhurst ultimately comes from student tuition or other sources such as ticket sales or alumni donations.

The former source is usually minimal since students are admitted to sporting events for free.

Mike Lyden, vice president of enrollment, said compiling a more comprehensive breakdown of tuition for students and parents to view it is not that easy.

“The vast majority of our revenues come from tuition and fees which are all lumped in a general fund,” said Lyden.

“There are so-called ‘operating budgets’ for all different departments,” he said, flipping through an enormous three-ring binder.

The list contained everything from the Hammermill Library, Egan Hall Cafeteria and the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center to lecture series,’ summer education and janitorial services.

“Every single department there is at the college is listed in there,” Lyden said. “It’s one long laundry list. Each has its own budget approved each year by its administrators, and athletics is the same way.

“There is nothing from revenues that goes to each. It’s in one lump sum and allocated to different departments,” he added.

Rent, advertising and postage are a few of the athletic department’s costs most people would not typically associate with sports. These are all essential to running the department, but attracting athletes to attend Mercyhurst is where the majority of costs lie.

“Our suspicion is that most people who play a sport would not have come here,” said Ludlow Brown, Ph.D., a professor of philosophy and head of the college’s Athletics Review Committee.

The committee, which was organized five years ago at the request of the Faculty Senate, was formed to “study the general characteristics of athletics and how they reflect the mission statement of the college,” Brown said.

“Our aim,” he said, “is to make everybody, including athletes, have a better experience.”

Brown and the Athletics Review Committee are trying to answer basic questions based on the facts.

“Would Mercyhurst be as recognized as it is without sports?” he asked. “I don’t think people realize how much representing of the college athletes do.”

Brown and Mercyhurst Provost James Adovasio, Ph.D., offered an intriguing sentiment.

“It’s naïve to think we could simply stop (offering athletics), and nobody here has that idea. Mercyhurst as an institution wouldn’t survive,” Brown said.

Adovasio, who deals with both major and minor expenditures, including the college’s athletic department, said sports represent a more indirect but important revenue stream.

“If the sports didn’t exist, I don’t think we’d be nearly as fiscally viable as we are,” he said.
Still, some students say the college could benefit from more transparency.

Sophomore lacrosse player Kayla Minner agreed with Angela Mills. She, too, said she would like to see a cost breakdown.

“It makes it so you know where your money is going,” Minner said.
Minner said she thinks all money spent on sports ultimately goes back into the school and benefits everyone.

Sophomore Kylie McCormick agreed with Brown’s statement about the nature of student athletes.

McCormick, a sophomore utility on the women’s water polo team said she would not be at Mercyhurst if not for athletics.
Colleges in McCormick’s home state of Florida do not offer varsity water polo programs.

“I looked in the Northeast, came here, loved the school and between academic scholarships and the polo program, it was a good fit,” said McCormick.

Many people assume students like McCormick are at Mercyhurst on full athletic scholarships, but that is not the case.

While the college does spend a large sum on athletically related student aid—more than $5.6 million in 2009-10—these students are here for academic reasons as well.

“As a Division II school, very, very few—maybe 35 or 40—are on a full scholarship,” Kimball said. “Usually they are here because they are a good student.”

The notion that other students work and pay tuition so that athletes can benefit is unfair, said Kimball.

“They (other students) don’t understand how much time the athlete puts in,” he said.