LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- The news that Kentucky's General Assembly plans to approve $363 million in bonds for building projects at various public universities in the state was hailed by University of Kentucky football fans, because it green-lighted improvements to Commonwealth Stadium.
But there is more to be applauded in this deal than that.
Those upgrades -- to be paid for by the UK athletic department and donations but not by public money -- are badly needed for a program trying to compete at ground zero of college football's facilities arms race. Back in December, I wrote in this space about the funding, facilities and off-the-field challenges that the next UK football coach would face. This is a big part of meeting those challenges.
UK football is a consistent moneymaker. With the exception of the past couple of years -- when fans felt compelled to make a statement on the tenure of Joker Phillips as coach -- the UK football fan base has been strong in good years and bad.
The $110 million Commonwealth and training facility upgrade will pay for itself, and UK athletics, which in some ways has left significant fund-raising potential untapped because it lacks suites in Rupp Arena and has only 40 at Commonwealth Stadium, will not only get a nicer facility for football, but will get up to 20 more luxury suites and 2,000 club seats with which to raise more money for its programs.
But the stadium is only part of the story at UK, and I'm not sure if it's even the biggest part.
Read on down in UK's plans and you'll see that among them is construction of a new $100 million science building.
UK has academic facilities needs all over campus. When I talked to former UK faculty member and trustee Joe Peek in 2011, one of the things he told me was, "the truth is, our infrastructure sucks." UK faculty at the time was calling on athletics to kick back more money to academic projects.
UK faculty ought to be happy with this science building. It turns out, UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart has put his money where their mouths were. Of the $100 million, $65 million will be paid by the UK athletic department, in the form of debt payments from $3 million to $5 million annually.
It is the largest single contribution of athletic money back to a university in the history of this state, and could bring UK athletics' general contribution back to the university to as much a $10 million in some years, not counting such areas as marketing and merchandise, which UK athletics doesn't even count as a separate donation to the school.
"We will do something very few universities in this country have done -- utilize the incredible brand that is our athletics program to help fund their needed facilities improvements and also one of our most important academic facilities," UK president Eli Capilouto said in a video statement released by the school. "Our current science building is the second-most utilized classroom space on campus. It is outdated and contains neither the classroom nor research space we need. This will change that."
This comes at a time when the huge windfalls being experienced by athletic departments as the result of cable TV deals and new broadcast contracts leave university officials wondering whether sports can't be utilized more as a source of funding.
State education appropriations are down across the country, and have been for a decade. University presidents, who have been maneuvering their schools via TV negotiations and conference realignments, now are looking to appropriate some of that money for academic uses. And they are right to do so.
When Texas struck a deal with ESPN to launch The Longhorn Network, a portion of the proceeds were earmarked to endow a pair of professorships. LSU recently agreed to transfer roughly $7 million per year to academic uses over the next five years. Tennessee's athletic department has been required by its university to donate $6 million per year to academics, but recently struck an agreement to waive that payment. Other schools in the SEC regularly kick money back to athletic causes. Florida has given back more than $50 million in the past dozen years.
But this contribution by UK takes things to a higher level.
As well, Kentucky legislators deserve credit for freeing up universities to put together these kinds of projects. At UK and the University of Louisville in particular, the schools are outpacing state appropriations with their own fundraising strength, and should be allowed, where they are able and where the risk to the state is minimal, to fund building projects and move forward with them where they demonstrate an unquestioned ability to pay. The state does not assume risk, and in the improvement and enhancement of perhaps its most important institutions -- its colleges and universities -- it reaps great rewards.
UK fixing up its football facilities is nice. It's standard operating procedure in the SEC, and in fact is long overdue.
But UK fans have much more reason to cheer on this one. In this commitment to return a portion of its SEC windfall to a significant campus capital project, Barnhart continues to make his department a financial model for the nation.
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