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Colleges in search of a higher profile are funneling more money into sports

For many students, the college experience includes game days watching athletes wearing the school colors take the field or court.

But in today’s environment of rising costs, soaring student debt and declining enrollment, college and university leaders are sometimes finding they have to explain the need for what has become an “arms race” among athletic departments.

The argument might be made that much of the money that is required to keep college athletic teams going comes from ticket sales and outside sources such as alumni contributions. The other side of that coin is that some of the cost is borne by students, even those with no interest in sports.

In the case of private institutions, it is up to school officials to decide whether the expense is worthwhile. The public has an obvious and greater role in the determination of the role and funding of sports in state institutions.

News staff reporter Jay Tokasz’s recent articles on the subject of college sports raised interesting questions about the average 23 percent increase in spending on intercollegiate athletics at the region’s 18 colleges since 2010. Does fielding a team result in increased enrollment numbers? Is sports an integral part of the college experience? Are schools getting enough bang for their athletic buck?

Canisius College, St. Bonaventure University and Niagara University compete at the highest level of intercollegiate sports, the national Collegiate Athletic Associations’s Division I, and have been able to lure some of the area’s best athletes with the promise of scholarships and strong competition.

That participation comes at a cost, but, according to college presidents, there are also benefits that would be lost by dropping down into a lower classification.

Canisius President John J. Hurley called any perceived savings from moving to Division III “illusory.” His counterparts who have also examined the issue feel the same. And why would they change? St. Bonaventure has funded increases in the men’s $2.7 million basketball budget in recent years through corporate sponsorships and private giving. That would not be doable if the men’s team competed at the Division III level.

In 2015 the Drake Group, a national organization, called for a cap on the amount of fees institutions can charge students for their intercollegiate athletics programs. The group points to budget cuts that hit many academic programs while athletic programs get more money. And despite big increases in sports spending, most institutions will never be competitive with the elite institutions that spend staggering amounts of money on athletics.

Still, a few moments in the spotlight of a national tournament can raise a college’s profile and lead a potential student to consider applying.

It worked like a charm on Tim Kenney, St. Bonaventure’s athletics director. He told the story of being a high school swimmer on Long Island back in 1991 and watching Richmond University’s team upset national powerhouse Syracuse University in the first round of the March Madness basketball tournament. He was so impressed he called the Richmond’s swimming coach to ask for a place on the swim team. Though he ended up at the University at Buffalo, where he was an All-American swimmer, students at least became aware of Richmond.

The 18 colleges in Western New York spent more than $86 million last year on intercollegiate sports, more than a third of it by the University at Buffalo. But the fact remains that only a small percentage of students ever play for their school. Many students are in the bleachers rooting for their teams, while others have no interest in athletics. Yet all are reaching deeper into their pockets to pay for the privilege of having teams.

The colleges and universities adding sports and boosting athletic budgets say the effort and expense are worthwhile. They have a responsibility to their students to ensure that the money is being spent as wisely as possible.

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