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In a disappointing turn, the University of Iowa’s sports programs can no longer be called self-sustaining.
The athletics department is set to take an estimated $50 million loan from the main institution, to be paid back over 10 to 15 years. The university also is scrapping a plan that would have had athletics contributing $2 million per year to the rest of the university.
The UI sports bailout demonstrates embarrassingly bad priorities at a moment when higher education in Iowa is encountering historic economic and demographic challenges. Making matters worse, the plan was approved by an outgoing university president, potentially tangling his successors’ purse strings.
For more than a decade, Hawkeye sports teams have operated without subsidies from taxpayers or students’ tuition. It has been a point of pride for fans — a mark of successful teams and good management. Defenders of the programs love to point it out whenever UI athletics is scrutinized by the public, which is often.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted in-person events. Even though collegiate competition proceeded, restricted attendance at games and abbreviated seasons obliterated the revenue streams departments and leagues rely on.
College sports are worth preserving, especially in a state with relatively few big entertainment spectacles, but university officials haven’t made a convincing case to the public that this huge loan is necessary.
UI finance officials will wait until the end of the budget year this summer to work out the details, The Gazette’s Vanessa Miller reported last week.
The huge difference between the situations at the state’s two major college sports programs is hard to figure.
With the terms ill defined, it seems like a blank check to the athletics department. How did they arrive at the hefty figure of $50 million and the decade-plus repayment period? We don’t know.
At Iowa State University, the athletics department took a much smaller $6 million loan and is expected to pay it back by the end of this fiscal year. The huge difference between the situations at the state’s two major college sports programs is hard to figure.
Meanwhile, other university units also suffer uncertainty under difficult financial situations. University leaders say state appropriations have not kept up with their needs in recent years, and a stagnant pool of new in-state students threatens Iowa universities’ enrollment prospects. It seems like a bad time to toss tens of millions of dollars to sports teams.
We love the Hawkeyes as much as anyone else. But the university’s educational mission must come first.
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