By Shannon Najmabadi and Daniel Levitt,
Private jets, chartered cars, visits to fancy restaurants.
College coaches in Texas and across the country are fanning out, like they do every spring, to high school football stadiums and basketball courts to recruit the most promising players to their teams. But over the past decade, the cost of doing that has mounted. At eight public schools in Texas that participate in the highest level of college sports, recruiting costs have increased 131 percent on average since the 2007-2008 academic year, according to financial reports filed with the NCAA.
Last year, those schools funneled a combined $9.8 million into recruiting the best high school players to their teams.
The stakes are high. Landing top athletes can lead to winning seasons and championships – which, in turn, can flood a campus with increased revenue from tickets, merchandise sales and big alumni donations.
“If you want excellence, you have to invest in it,” said Lisa Campos, athletics director at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Students recognize that an athletic program serves as the front door to a university and attracts potential students, supporters and donors who might not otherwise be familiar” with it.
Though college athletes aren’t paid, recruiting them is an enterprise that has many of the wine-and-dine hallmarks of the corporate world. Powerhouse programs, like those at Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin, can afford those prices. Both schools put more than $2 million toward recruiting last year while raking in millions more in revenue.
But recruiting costs are also rising at other Texas schools that compete in the Football Bowl Subdivision: the University of Houston, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at El Paso, UTSA, Texas State University and Texas Tech University.
Unlike A&M’s and UT-Austin’s athletics programs – which are so profitable they can generate revenue for other initiatives on campus – the programs at those six schools can’t sustain themselves financially. Last year, those six athletics programs were subsidized by a combined $116 million in student fees and other institutional funds.
Travel, meals and coaches’ packets
Spreadsheets and receipts provided to The Texas Tribune under open records laws show that many schools’ recruiting costs go toward travel expenses – like airfare for recruits and coaches, rental cars, chartered buses and limousine companies — and meals that ranged from a $7,200 catered breakfast to $21.11 spent on Torchy’s Tacos.
The expenses also document the presence of cottage industries that have sprung up around college sports recruiting, like coaches’ packets that contain information about up-and-coming high school players.
“Sold at recruiting events,” these packets “include booklets with information on potential recruit schools, stats on scoring, heights, weight, etc.,” reads a note at the bottom of a ledger of expenses from UTEP.
Last year, coaches at UTEP and two other schools paid more than $12,000, collectively, for these packets about prospective football players and women’s and men’s basketball players. At least another $100,000 was spent among those colleges on scouting services, specialized software, access to databases and certain fees.
Among the Texas schools, A&M devoted the most money to recruiting last year — $2.7 million. According to receipts and spreadsheets provided to the Tribune, the football team alone spent tens of thousands of dollars on chartered buses, SUVs or Lincoln sedans for recruiting.
“Texas A&M Athletics is a fully committed partner in the overall mission of the University. Last year alone, Athletics provided significant assistance to a program to upgrade and remodel lecture halls and classrooms on the main campus,” said Douglas Walker, senior associate athletics director for external affairs at A&M, in a statement.
Another rainmaker, UT-Austin’s athletics program forked over $2.3 million last year – including $117,745.04 to lodge and feed potential football recruits for a week and $20,483.50 on a January dinner. More than half a million dollars were spent on private or chartered flights to recruit for UT-Austin’s football and basketball teams; A&M’s athletic program put about $1 million toward a similar expense.
Texas Tech, meanwhile, spent $1.8 million on recruiting in the 2016-2017 academic year – near double what they spent a decade prior – with some of the expenses going to scout for basketball players in Italy, France and Guam, and to hire an international scouting service. They also spent $43,625 on flights with one private aviation company.
The other Texas schools play in lower-profile conferences that don’t generate the same revenue from ticket purchases or television distribution deals. Those colleges spent less than A&M, UT-Austin and Texas Tech, but their recruiting costs have seen a similar rate of growth.
Texas State and UTSA, for example, have each seen their recruiting expenses increase by more than 174 percent in the past decade. Spokespeople for the schools, which each pumped roughly half a million into recruiting efforts last year, said the increase is in part due to the creation and expansion of sports programs there.
Texas State’s program received a $27.8 million infusion from student fees and institutional funds last year, and UTSA’s got $17.4 million.
A “proxy measure of quality”
Spokespeople for UTSA and Texas State said that the spending is a worthwhile investment, one that can pay dividends off the field.
“There’s this proxy measure of the quality of the university that’s somehow tied up with its athletics,” said Eric Algoe, a vice president at Texas State. “We can debate whether that’s right or wrong, but it’s perceived as a measure of quality out there in middle America.”
Ignoring that fact can harm “your ability to do other things that having a national reputation might allow you to do: like get external funding for grants; like get big gifts to the university from our philanthropic supporters; like attract the best and brightest students from around the country,” Algoe said. “All of those things are served by having a prominent athletic program that you know is on ESPN, that is getting reported on in USA Today.”
About a decade ago, Texas State students voted to move their athletics program to a different tier – and agreed to impose fees on themselves to enable the jump. Those fees now tack an added $20 per semester credit hour on to students’ bills — about $480 a year for a full-time student.
Around the same time, a similar vote was taken at UTSA. A 2007 referendum – “held to help gauge support of a football program,” according to Kyle Stephens, a spokesperson for the athletics department there – received ‘yes’es from two-thirds of the students who voted, and the school was given license to start a football program in 2008.
“The addition of football, along with a transition to a higher-profile conference affiliation for all 17 sports, necessitated aggressive recruiting to be competitive” and a greater investment in coaches’ salaries, Stephens said.
Algoe, describing the similar circumstance at Texas State, said: “I think that the student fee approach is really the most transparent way of funding your athletic program. It’s honest, it’s transparent, everybody understands what they’re paying and why they’re paying it.” He later said, “the only thing that might land us in the news more than athletics spending would be a large percentage tuition increase.”
In exchange for the fees they pay, students at both schools receive free entry to home football games and other athletic events on campus – and they benefit from what Algoe described as the “intangible” benefits that college-sports can bring: an uptick in school spirit, alumni engagement and brand-name recognition.
“Finances is one important part,” Algoe said, “but there’s a lot of important things that go into assessing the quote-unquote value of an athletics program.”
“As an alumni, one of the things that most powerfully connects former students to the university is a successful athletics program,” he said. “Athletics play a really big part in the social fabric of the institution and the surrounding community.”