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Sunday, March 3, 2024

UNC System seeks more oversight on athletics

The UNC System Board of Governors is set to consider two draft policy changes that will tighten the central oversight of intercollegiate sports at many of its 16 universities.

One proposal likely to receive national notice would require any chancellor looking to change conference affiliations to give system President Peter Hans “advance notice” before executing any such deal.

That change obviously targets UNC Chapel Hill, a potential target for either the Big Ten or the Southeastern Conference should it decide to wriggle out of its longtime affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The motive for doing so would be an order-of-magnitude bigger chunk of TV money from Fox Sports or ESPN.

It would also bring certainty that’s been missing for many programs ever since Southern Cal (led by former UNC Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt) and UCLA upended college sports by deciding to jump ship from the Pacific 12 Conference to the Big Ten.

UCLA’s move was controversial within California because the school more or less presented it to University of California regents as a fait accompli, regardless of the financial fallout for Cal Berkeley or any other school in that system.

Talk of UNC Chapel Hill moving, meanwhile, is fraught for a similar reason: What happens to N.C. State’s program? The Tar Heels are the hotter of the two programs for both mega conferences and their partner TV networks.

The system proposal — currently marked “for discussion only” by a BOG committee this week — would forestall a UCLA-style diktat.

Not only would an institution wanting to change conferences have to give notice to the system president, it would also have to submit a “financial plan” for the president’s approval.

The California regents wound up forcing UCLA to compensate Berkeley for leaving the PAC-12 in the lurch. So UNC System officials appear to want to have that discussion up front.

As for the Board of Governors, it would, nominally, get assigned an advisory role. It could “provide a recommendation to the constituent institution,” according to the draft.

But while the conference-change draft will get the national attention, it’s the other proposed policy change that may mean more to campuses and students.

It targets any school that gets state money “specifically appropriated for its athletics department operations,” a category that’s grown suddenly thanks to the 2023-25 budget.

The spending plan offers 10 schools $17 million in non-recurring subsidies of athletics over the next two years. The 10 include the system’s five HBCUs and UNC Pembroke, plus Western Carolina, UNC Asheville, UNC Greensboro and UNC Wilmington.

Legislators coupled that to a demand that the 10 programs each gives Hans “a plan to provide an economic benefit” to both their campuses and their campuses’ service region.

System officials are now trying to flesh that out, and say they want a five-year plan that goes beyond the legislative ask. They want to know how campuses would reduce athletic-department operating deficits, any subsidy of athletics from non-athletic accounts and any athletics-induced pressure for student fee increases.

Unlike UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State, other athletic programs in the system aren’t getting big bucks from TV and boosters, and often operate at a deficit.

Most make up part of the the difference by charging “student athletic fees.” At the flagships, the mandatory fee’s under $300 a year. Everywhere else, it’s more than $700 a year, and in most cases, north of $800. For the smaller schools, it’s a student-affordability issue.

Less visibly, many campuses also shuffle money internally to subsidize athletics. Reducing that sort of hidden cross-subsidy was a reason that trustees at N.C. Central raised their student athletic fee back in the late 2010s.

There’s obvious interest at the system level to address these issues.

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