Could conference realignment cost Arizona students?

Published: Aug. 8, 2023 at 6:06 PM MST|Updated: Aug. 9, 2023 at 3:01 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - As the University of Arizona and Arizona State realign from the PAC-12 conference to the Big-12, the 13 News Fact Finders looked into a possible financial impact on students.

Switching conferences often means more money spent on things like travel and rebranding. Some schools have used fees to offset that. Stephanie Herbst-Lucke of Georgia State University is a top scholar on the subject. She interviewed dozens of athletic directors and commission leaders. She says, ultimately, students pay the price for an unstable industry.

Herbst-Lucke measured the impact on the school’s brand, enrollment, attendance, graduation rates, and reputation. She found there was often no change, but when there was an impact, it was negative. Despite big media agreements, this research shows the majority of schools that switch conferences don’t come out ahead (learn more about this analysis in our web extra with Dr. Herbst-Lucke, which you can find here: ). It can damage the brand, leading to debt. That debt could be paid down by adding student fees, increasing tuition, or reallocating money for the student body into athletics.

“We have universities with over $40 million in debt for their athletic departments. that’s a concern, I would think,” said Herbst-Lucke. “And I would ask myself as a student if I want to pay those fees.”

Dr. Herbst-Lucke also points out that attendance is down and debt is up across the board. Universities often make these moves based on the concept that an investment in athletics helps build the institution and attracts better applicants, helping everyone. In a few cases, like at the University of Alabama, that’s been true.

UA’s athletic director told us the move to the Big-12 is about sustainability and stability, given the domino effect of schools leaving the PAC-12. Will Arizona be on the winning side? We’ll have to wait and see.

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