Seaton: Try to put growing athletics in perspective

By Ned Seaton

If you’ve ever dreamed of diving into a pool full of twenty-dollar bills, just head to Bramlage Coliseum. That’s the headquarters of the K-State athletics department, and they’re swimming in money up there. It’s spurting out of spigots so fast they can’t figure out what to do with all of it.

Well, that’s an exaggeration. Surely John Currie, the athletic director, could spend it all by tomorrow morning if he wanted to. Credit him with some self-restraint. Actually, more self-restraint than a lot of his peers. Back to that in a minute.

The budget for the coming year is $65 million, Currie recently announced. That’s up by more than $20 million, or 49 percent, since 2010. Think about that: It’s half again bigger than it was just five years ago. And it wasn’t exactly Little Sisters of the Poor to start with.

If there were a company interested in coming to town that was doing $65 million in annual sales, the Chamber of Commerce and the city and county governments would be slobbering all over themselves, throwing incentives like a politician winging Jolly Ranchers in a downtown parade.

There are probably now only a small group of local companies doing anywhere near that kind of business: Steel and Pipe Supply and GTM come to mind. CivicsPlus, one of the big engines of growth lately, isn’t that big.

Mercy Regional Health Center reported $89 million in revenue for the most recent year available in public records. Certainly local government entities are bigger, but even then the comparison is eye-opening: Athletics is now about half the size of the Manhattan city government. The payroll for the Manhattan school district is in the neighborhood of $40 million. The NBAF payroll is projected at $30 million a year.

Shoot, if there were a company doing $20 million a year in sales — just the size of the increase in the athletics budget — most people around here would do backflips if they moved to town.

This is not unique to K-State. Television money — largely funded by your cable bills — is pumping up schools in the big conferences across the country. People are also willing to donate to their alma mater, and buy tickets to watch college kids play ball. Donations and tickets sales make up nearly half of the K-State budget. But conference money — read, TV — has doubled since 2009 and now makes up $26 million.

As I said before, I’m not blaming Currie or anybody else for flinging cash around like a tipsy 21-year-old at Country Stampede. In fact, K-State’s operation has been profitable and has quit taking a subsidy from the university. They’re also planning to pay for their own utilities, saving the university about $3 million in the 2016 budget year.

I’m just making a pretty obvious point: In a town of 50,000 people without a lot of big companies, an increase of $20 million a year in revenue is an enormous deal.

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