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If they need a financial boost, some major-college athletics programs can rely on an upcoming TV rights revenue increase or raise ticket prices.
Some can tap their donors.
Others can look to their university administration, governing board or student bodies for more funding from school coffers or fees.
The University of Wyoming athletics program has looked to the governor and the state legislature.
And this hasn't just been about getting the money to fund recent increases in benefits for athletes that have been allowed under NCAA rules changes related to scholarships covering the full cost of attending school and the availability of meals and snacks.
It has been about a much wider range of spending needs that Wyoming athletics officials thought was necessary for the program to be competitive at least in the Mountain West Conference — and especially in football. The Cowboys had gone 4-8, 5-7, 4-8 and 2-10 before an 8-6 breakthrough that included an MWC division title last season, their third under coach Craig Bohl.
Facilities were a part of it. That is how Wyoming secured $20 million in state matching funds toward a $44 million training facility that includes specific features for football but will be used by all athletes and includes a nutrition center. In addition, there were about $15 million in matching funds toward a $30 million renovation of the basketball arena.
But as athletics director Tom Burman said: "We realized we needed operational dollars. Recruiting, team travel, scholarships, meals, summer school. Basically, those areas in particular. So we met with legislators and told the story. When Coach Bohl was here, Gov. (Matt) Mead asked him, 'What's it going to take?' And he walked him through it. That's how it started."
Of the 230 Division I public schools in the 2015-16 USA TODAY Sports college athletics financial data set, 34 reported (15%) receiving direct governmental support for that year.
In Wyoming's case, that entailed legislators and the governor approving an increase in another matching program that had been set up for annual donations to the athletics department's fundraising arm while the state cut its annual general appropriations for the university.
The match for annual donations went from 50 cents for every dollar up to $1 million a year, to a dollar-for-dollar match up to $4 million a year. (A one-year overlap in the programs resulted in nearly $5 million from the state in 2015-16.) This in addition to a steady $2 million in student fees and funding from the university's general fund that increased by $800,000 during the 2015-16 school year to a net of $12.4 million, according to the financial report Wyoming filed with the NCAA.
Those dollars helped Wyoming absorb not only what senior associate AD for business operations Bill Sparks said were nearly $700,000 in spending increases related to the start of cost-of-attendance-based scholarships but also make another boost in its spending on recruiting. For 2013-14, Wyoming reported $620,000 in total recruiting spending. For 2015-16, it reported $1.2 million — $612,000 for football recruiting.
Overall, the additional state funding let Wyoming increase its athletics expenses by almost $3.9 million in 2015-16 compared with 2014-15. Even adjusting for inflation, that amount represents the greatest single-year increase in Wyoming athletics spending by either dollars or percentage during the 11 years for which USA TODAY Sports has compiled this information. (The 2016 data are based on documents acquired in conjunction with the Sports Capital Journalism Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.)
Wyoming is one of six schools in the Mountain West that reported receiving government money among their operating revenue in 2015-16, with five reporting more than $2.75 million each.
Sparks says he thinks the donation-matching method used by his state has played a role in the athletics department's ability to substantially increase its donations totals. In 2014-15 and 2015-16, the department reported a combined total of more than $11.2 million in donations, compared with more than $7.6 million for the two previous years. The state match is a big incentive for donors and a big selling point for the department, Sparks said.
Burman says he is sensitive to the state's financial difficulties that have been caused by a fall in oil and natural gas prices. But he also says that just increases the importance of Wyoming's only four-year public university having a successful football program.
"There's a couple things going on at UW right now," Burman said. "With the downturn in the economy ... the university needs to grow. We need to grow students. We're going to have the largest freshman class this year that we've had in decades. I think part of that has to do with the excitement generated last year through football. I think that helps.
"And that's the role we can play in helping the university get out of this financial challenge. Because if they grow tuition revenue, it helps everybody. Football has to be strong, and it has to be strong to keep this investment of $4 million a year. It's easy to say no right now when there are important projects in the state that are being cut. Some could say, 'This really isn't important.' I say it's an economic engine. I also say it's important for the institution, the university, and we only have one."
Contributing: Christopher Schnaars. Myerberg reported from Laramie, Wyo.
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