Running breakfast sandwiches and Starbucks coffee at the Courtyard Marriott – that’s how Rashaad Everett paid for school his freshman and sophomore years.
Everett had a scholarship that covered tuition and board, but fees came out of his pocket. It took 80 hours at the Marriott to pay the remaining balance of $1,835.
“I definitely didn’t do as well in my classes,” Everett said. “I feel like if I could work less or not have to work at all, and all my time went to school, I would definitely be a better student.”
Of the eight fees that in-state undergraduate students pay, the athletics fee is the largest slice of the pie with a $14.32 charge per credit hour. A full-time undergraduate student taking 12 credit hours will contribute around $172 to the athletic department per semester. Athletics fees like this aren’t unheard of for programs similar to UCF.
With every on-campus undergraduate and graduate student at UCF paying this fee, that adds up. Nearly 40 percent of the $56 million athletic budget comes via this athletic fee. This means that students are contributing to UCF's ambitious construction projects and lofty coaching salaries.
“We have said for years — since I’ve been here — that students are our biggest donors, and we always try to provide real positive stewardship and treat our donors well,” said Andy Seeley, the associate director of athletics for strategic communications. “That goes for the students more so, because they’re our biggest contributors in that regard.”
Welcome to a Group of Five conference, where athletic fees are the norm. UCF’s conference foe, the University of South Florida, receives about 36 percent of their athletic revenue from athletic fees. USF charges each student slightly more than UCF with a $14.46 fee per credit hour.
Scott Bukstein, the associate director of the DeVos Graduate Sport Business Management Program, wrote a book on college athletics budgets. Bukstein said relying on student fees to compete with Power Five programs is not an ideal solution.
“Students fees, essentially, are a subsidy,” Bukstein said. “Meaning without student fees our athletics program would operate at a deficit. There’s no other source of revenue.”
Applying student fees may bring a Group of Five program closer financially to a Power Five program, but the gap is still wide.
Competing in a Power Five conference doesn’t just add to strength of schedule. Power Five conference teams such as the University of Florida have drastic financial advantages over UCF.
UF, for example, boasts a $135 million athletics budget — more than twice UCF’s. The backbone of the Gators' revenue is conference distributions.
The NCAA and Southeastern Conference pay over $44 million to UF each year thanks to media deals. UCF, on the other hand, gets a mere $5 million from the NCAA and its conference. UCF’s athletic department recognizes the disadvantages that a lack of media money has on their program.
“It always comes back to the television money and how can we continue to increase and improve that,” Seeley said. “Because that’s really the vast difference between us and a lot of the other Power Six programs.”
UF charges students a mere $1.90 in athletic fees per credit hour, and just 2 percent of their budget come from these fees.
The American Athletic Conference’s marketing team is pushing to be recognized as one of the Power Five schools with their “Power Six” branding. The hashtag #AmericanPow6r is pinned to their Twitter page. Financially, though, the AAC is a step below the Power Five conferences.
“It’s a wonderful hashtag,” Bukstein said. “It’s a wonderful concept, but the financial realities are extremely different between the athletic departments within the American Athletic Conference and the athletic departments within each of the Power Five conferences.”
The NCAA received $981 million in revenue in 2015-16 and distributed 78 percent of that revenue to member conferences. The College Football Playoff distributes tens of millions of dollars to the conferences, and the difference is evident between Power Five and Group of Five distributions.
The SEC received $71.6 million in revenue distribution in the 2016-17 season. The AAC is less than a third of the way there with $20.3 million sent to them. That’s less than the Mid-American Conference and drastically less than all the Power Five conferences.
While Power Five programs having such a financial advantage is helpful, it doesn't guarantee success on the field. UCF football demonstrated that teams don't need budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars to compete with the best.
"The most important thing is to develop a culture," Bukstein said. "A culture where student athletes want to play or want to earn a degree and where coaches want to work. That's what's most important -- creating a culture of excellence. I think that's much more important than financial resources."
UCF will continue to look for ways to increase their revenue, though. Catching up financially with programs that have the advantage of playing in a Power Five conference is a three-step process, Bukstein said.
“Increase revenue in three different areas: ticket sales, and then ticket sales revenue can drive revenue in the area of corporate sponsorships and giving – donations,” Bukstein said.
The relatively young age of UCF has a negative impact on the donations area. UCF received $7.1 million in contributions compared to UF’s $36.6 million. Bukstein said this is due to the age of UCF alumni.
“Right now, we still have many alums who are in the wealth accumulation phase as compared to the giving back phase,” Bukstein said. “But, I do think there’s a core group of former UCF students that, within the next few years, will be ready to make some significant contributions.”
Contributions to the athletics program have bounced from $5 million to $10 million, but there has been no steady increase or decrease in the past five years.
So, as long as UCF is in a Group of Five conference and making just $4.9 million in ticket sales, they will continue to rely on student fees.
For their contribution, students can attend any sporting event on campus for free. Seeley said the department wants to reward students with can’t-miss events.
“I think, personally, and I think that we have a belief in the department, that college athletics can be and should be a real integral part of the college experience,” Seeley said. “So, we do everything we can to try to encourage our students to take advantage of that experience.”
Not every student enjoys sports, though. Everett, for example, is a junior psychology major who minors in music and hasn’t attended a game in three years.
Bukstein said that fees can be justified by catering to students with all types of interests.
“Maybe you then sponsor some type of art fair and art team to go to a conference,” Bukstein said. “You’ve just got to figure out a way – how do we keep everyone engaged? Because then, those are folks that might give back moving forward. Or how do you get someone like Rashaad out to an event just so he can experience it?”
Other students shrug off the athletic fee because they take advantage of it by going to football and basketball games often. Roman Ericson is an aerospace engineering student who said he usually attends games about twice a month.
“I’d say it’s fair … for me,” Ericson said.
Neither Ericson or Everett were aware of the fees they pay. Ericson argues that making the charges more visible to students could increase student attendance.
“Maybe if they made it more clear, then maybe people would go to more games because they know it’s part of the tuition,” Ericson said. “They never told me about [the athletic fee]. Well, I probably missed it."