The on-the-court product at the Super Pit featured staples of a competitive, back-and-forth big-time college basketball game.
Coaches paced the sidelines and barked orders, players crashed into one another under the basket and a video board over center court pumped up the crowd during timeouts. There was even a game-tying 3-pointer in the closing seconds of regulation that sent the game into overtime.
But the scene inside the 9,800-seat arena was anything but big time.
Fans could easily find parking spots right next to the arena minutes before tip-off. Lines for tickets and concessions were virtually nonexistent. Inside the building, the 20-person band often drowned out the crowd.
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That's because just 2,300 fans turned out for the Mean Green's Feb. 15 overtime loss to Western Kentucky, one of the best teams in Conference USA.
The same scene played out at UT Arlington a week later, where the Mavericks rolled past Georgia Southern 83-63 before 2,099 at College Park Center. The 7,000-seat arena opened six years ago at a cost of $78 million, and has seen low attendance numbers ever since, according to the NCAA.
Even though they've shown little interest in their teams, students at North Texas, UT Arlington and most of the state's other Division I universities are shouldering the costs of athletic programs that are losing millions as they try to compete in the highest level of intercollegiate athletics.
The state's Division I universities spent more than $214 million in the 2016-17 school year to shore up their athletic programs, according to an analysis of financial reports obtained by the Star-Telegram through the state's Open Records Act. And students covered $100 million of that through fees tacked onto their tuition.
“Most people here are balancing school and work, so it’s not a first choice for people who are paying for their college,” said Kristen Spaulding, a junior at North Texas, where students taking 15 hours a semester pay $300 a year in fees for the Mean Green athletic program.
“Most people here pay for part or all of their tuition, so I’d like to think they’d have their students' backs a little more than ‘Oh we’re going to take all your money and put it toward sports.’ ”
March Madness will put a spotlight on the handful of small-budget teams that will notch an upset or two in the NCAA Tournament. For university presidents, success on the national stage provides invaluable exposure.
“I watch North Texas play in a bowl game every few years and that’s the only way I know that North Texas even exists as an institution,” said Scott Hirko, an assistant professor of sport management at Central Michigan University. “That’s what you’re going to get from the administrations: the investment for positive promotion and publicity from the athletic programs is far greater than the cost.”
In the 2016-2017 school year, Texas and Texas A&M each generated more than $200 million in revenue from donations, ticket sales, conference payouts, licensing and media deals. Neither institution charges their students an athletics fee.
Most of the state's other collegiate athletic programs, though, don't even make enough money on their own to cover their coaching staffs' salaries, team travel expenses and the scholarships they give to athletes.
Financial reports sent to the NCAA by the universities highlight the divide:
- Six of the state's 16 public Division I athletic programs generated less than $502,000 in ticket sales for all their sports last year. That's less than Allen High School made on ticket sales for its football games ($529,158).
- Even Texas Tech of the Big 12 needed financial help from its students. They paid $3.27 million in fees for the athletic program. The university spent another $2.5 million.
- Without the student fees and support from their universities, three programs — North Texas, Texas State and Houston — would have lost more than $20 million.
- Texas A&M received $92.3 million in contributions, Texas $42.6 million and Texas Tech $25.3 million. The 13 other schools received $22 million combined in donations.
Students at UT Arlington pay up to $115 a semester for athletics, or $8.50 a credit hour. North Texas students just approved increasing the athletic fee by $6.25 a credit hour. So next year's freshmen will pay almost $2,000 in fees for the athletic program by the time they graduate.
Students at UNT graduate with an average of $25,249 in student debt, according to a report from LendEDU. UTA's average student debt is $15,559.
And while students at both universities receive access to recreational facilities and free tickets to sporting events, those activities don’t serve a purpose for everyone.
“I don’t like sports at all, so I had nothing invested in it,” said Anthony Rich, a graduate student at UTA, who also earned a bachelor's degree there. “It seems kind of wasteful. Not too many of us in the physics department are involved with sports. I can see where if it really mattered to someone it could be important. But I’m not really sure that it should be something we are all obligated to do.”
North Texas president Neal Smatresk said the “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” is to join a Power 5 conference. But he conceded that was a pipe dream for UNT and most other schools.
“All things considered, I think the athletics fee is a good fee, it’s a fair fee,” Smatresk said. “And our fee is pretty low as far as many Texas schools go.”
But the student fees aren't enough to cover the costs. So the universities pour millions into the athletic programs, using money from tuition, state funding or their endowments. That's money that could be used to lower tuition, improve academic programs, boost faculty pay or hire more professors.
This comes at a time when cuts in state funding are forcing universities across the state to cut academic spending.
At UTA, 40 percent of the professors are part-timers; at UNT the figure is 30 percent. UTA's student-teacher ratio is 26-1; UNT's is 25-1.
Andrew Brandt has been a physics professor at UTA for 20 years. He believes there is a place for college athletics at the university. But at the same time, he hopes that the academic departments could receive additional funds.
“From the professor's point of view it would be nice to get raises every year,” he said. “Some years we do, some years we don’t. It depends on how much the state Legislature and the university decide to devote to higher education. And I think it’s ridiculous how much they keep decreasing the support for higher education.”
On Feb. 19, UNT students voted to increase the athletic fee from $10 to 16.25 per credit hour. They also decreased another fee by $2.
The vote was originally scheduled during finals, the week of Dec. 4-6, and with just a few weeks' notice, according to Student Government Association president Barrett Cole. Only 9 percent of the student body participated in the February referendum.
On Feb. 9, UT San Antonio students turned out in record numbers to overwhelmingly reject a proposal to add a dollar to their $20 per credit hour fee for athletics (77 percent voted no).
“Regardless of the vote, it was really good to see the students participate civically and realize that their vote does matter,” said UTSA student body president Marcus Thomas. “I took a lot of joy in that. It was good for students to have a say in the cost of their education."
State Rep. Travis Clardy, a Nacogdoches Republican, serves on the Texas House Committee for Higher Education. Asked if he thought it was fair for students who are already facing high tuition bills to pay for athletics, he referred to the UNT vote in which only 2,366 students voted.
“All that we can do is provide the opportunity for people to be educated and informed, and to go vote,” Clardy said. “That’s true with city, county, state elections. I don’t know of a fairer way to do it than to put it out there and let the people decide. And if it doesn’t mean enough to show up to vote, then maybe that tells us something in and of itself.”
In interviews at North Texas and UT Arlington, there were students who said athletics were an important part of university life.
“I like the idea of sporting events,” said UTA senior Christopher Flores. “If I wasn’t commuting I would like going to a game, and I think it brings a sense of camaraderie.”
Additionally, administrators and educators pointed to the opportunities athletic scholarships provide. UTA provided $2.4 million worth of financial aid to 185 student-athletes last year while UNT handed out $5.1 million to 284 athletes.
“Part of what we are trying to do, like any university, is particularly trying to help low-income, first-generation students,” said David Coursey, the chairman of the faculty senate at UTA. "This is their opportunity to go to school and they have it through an athletic scholarship. If you cut athletics all those scholarships go away.”
Hirko, the Central Michigan professor, has been studying college spending on athletics for the past six years for the Knight Commission, which was formed in the 1980s to recommend reforms that emphasize academic values.
“I think investing in athletics is a great thing. I am a firm believer in it,” he said. “Just like you invest in a library, or tutoring services, or campus dining halls.
"I think athletics are worth it. The real question is how much? That’s the point. I would argue that there has been too much investment.”
Here's how much students taking 30 hours are paying each year for the athletic programs at their universities:
Texas A&M Corpus Christi
Sam Houston State
UT San Antonio
Prairie View A&M
|UT Rio Grande Valley||$324|
Stephen F. Austin
Note: UTEP and UT Rio Grande Valley's fees are part of student services fees. A University of Houston spokesman could not provide the amount students are charged for the school's athletic fees.