Virginia college sports teams in the red, students pay more to save them

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Photo - Virginia Commonwealth's Treveon Graham (21) goes up against Massachusetts' Tyler Bergantino during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament on Saturday, March 16, 2013, in New York. Virginia Commonwealth won 71-62. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Virginia Commonwealth's Treveon Graham (21) goes up against Massachusetts' Tyler Bergantino during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament on Saturday, March 16, 2013, in New York. Virginia Commonwealth won 71-62. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

Virginia Commonwealth University has punched its ticket to the NCAA collegiate basketball tournament. Two other state schools, Liberty and James Madison universities, also have a shot at joining the 64-team field.

But the rest of Virginia's colleges didn't make the big dance, which opens Thursday, and for students attending those schools, it will cost a lot more than deflated school spirit.

Many of Virginia's NCAA Division I basketball programs reported six- and seven-figure financial losses in 2012, according to state audits. Only the College of William and Mary, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia had profitable men's hoops teams before factoring in student athletic fees.

College Athletic fees per student Total fees collected
Longwood $1,767 $6,943,755
Norfolk State $1,510 $10,023,282
Virginia Military Institute $1,430 $2,956,564
William & Mary $1,485 $10,910,040
Old Dominion $1,210 $26,024,503
Radford $1,123 $10,296,248
James Madison $1,153 $27,298,448
University of Virginia $657 $13,131,129
Virginia Commonwealth $635 $16,677,203
George Mason $514 $13,379,272
Virginia Tech $267 $7,347,478
Sources: State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts

All 11 of the schools audited relied on fees to keep their sports programs in the black. Students at eight of those schools pay $1,000 or more annually in athletic fees, sometimes in exchange for free admission or discounted tickets to school sporting events.

University officials see big-time sports as beneficial to their schools, a way to gain lucrative TV and advertising deals, and the kind of attention that attracts more students and bigger alumni contributions.

"It's an institutional investment into a very significant portion of campus life, and each institution has to determine on its own 'Where do they want intercollegiate athletics to be?' " said Wood Selig, athletic director at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, which collects $26 million a year in athletic fees. "Some of the best marketing an institution can do is having a strong intercollegiate athletic program."

Critics argue that the fees are not only high but often overlooked by parents and students who don't realize how quickly the mandatory charges are adding up.

"It's still very difficult at a number of schools to discover what the athletic fee actually is," said Terry Meyers, who serves on the athletic budget oversight committee of the College of William and Mary faculty senate and an outspoken opponent of rising athletic fees. "State institutions have an obligation to be as transparent as it can be."

James Madison University students paid $1,153 each in activity fees, generating a total of $27 million, more than any other state school. The $1,510 athletic fee that Norfolk State University charges is almost half the cost of a year's tuition.

Men's basketball and football programs have the greatest earning potential in college sports, but they also are among the most expensive to run. And sometimes it's difficult to see the returns. Longwood University students pay $1,767 a year in athletic fees, the highest in the state, but their basketball team finished 8-25 this year, and their coach resigned.

Victory does have additional benefits, however. VCU's unlikely Final Four finish in 2011 sparked widespread interest in the Richmond school, as did George Mason University's 2006 post-season run, which generated an increase in applications, particularly from out-of-state students.

"They've heard of George Mason when it comes time to pick a university," said Ron Shayka, an senior associate athletic director at George Mason. "They've heard of us because of intercollegiate athletics. The fact is so many universities have decided that it's an integral part of the intercollegiate experience."

But Meyers, of William and Mary, worries that too much of the cost is being dumped on students who are already carrying record levels of debt.

"No one seems to focus on the way this generation has suffered in ways that other generations of parents and students haven't," Meyers said.

scontorno@washingtonexaminer.com

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