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UTRGV College Football: At what, whose cost?

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

The authors served various functions in past student government associations including Senator-at-Large and President at both legacy institutions and UTRGV from 2013 to 2017.

Update: Cameron County voters reject sports stadium proposal.

By Jonathan Salinas, Mauricio Lomeli Martinez, Denisse Molina-Castro

UTRGV Brownsville, 14 October 2021. Photo by Jonathan Salinas

College football may finally come to the Rio Grande Valley, if current UTRGV students vote in favor of raising athletics fees for future generations. Although university officials recently tried explaining the costs, the specific proportion football would receive and for what exactly the funds would pay was unclear.

The Student Government Association (SGA) recently held town halls in Brownsville and Edinburg, hosting vice presidents Dr. Maggie Hinojosa and Mr. Chasse Conque. Hinojosa, who oversees enrollment and student affairs, addressed the proposed increase from an institutional and broader, public impact perspective. Conque, athletics director, spoke to the logistics and vision of the program. Their 12 slide, 30 minute presentation showed various figures except funding distributions between football and other athletic programs. When pressed in Brownsville during the question period by our colleague and fellow alum, Jonathan Salinas, Conque conceded, “Yes, if you’re talking pure dollars and cents, football would receive the most funding.”

UTRGV proposes adding women’s swimming and diving, expanding the cheer squad, and the creation of “spirit programs,” including two marching bands, alongside football. Per NCAA Title IX equity regulations, the university must add roughly an equal number of female athletic positions for every new male athletic position created. Funding, however, is anything but.

To gain a solid idea of how athletics fees would be distributed among the programs you’d have to read a little-known “feasibility study” commissioned by the university in 2016, yet strangely absent from all discussion during this period. Perhaps because it clearly illustrates college football to be the money-sucking cash-cow it’s commonly known to be institutionally, yet profitable enterprise for stadium and restaurant owners, banks, advertisers, contractors and financial speculators. No wonder NCAA football was rated as a $4 billion industry by Fortune in 2020.

A common misconception about the study exists which says it was “favorable” and claimed college football would be a great idea at UTRGV. The furthest the study, authored by famed college football coach Mack Brown, went was to note enthusiasm existed in the area for college football as of course would be the case in any Texas town. Another misconception, one echoed by Conque in Brownsville, is that it focused on "FBS" football. The substance of the 81-page report was actually quite even-handed, offering the university options, data and case studies, three from each major conference (FBS, FCS) and one FCS program which did not launch for an inability to cover costs without digging into other university funds. Most, with exception to power-houses, are unprofitable.

First the study showed that football programs take up at least half of athletics fees it’s supposed to share with “equity” programs. As can be seen in a case study on page 55, East Tennessee State’s funding distribution shows “Gender Equity” receiving a mere $600k of a projected $2.8 million of designated student fees for 2019. "Administrative salaries,” insurance and “miscellaneous expenses” received $700k. Football got the remaining $1.5 million. But Football is additionally-funded through revenues, dividends, and private gift donations, ETSU’s football expenses totaling more than $3.5 million.

Our second observation sheds light on why football is exorbitantly expensive, compared to its peer programs. The study showed that coaching salaries take up around a third to half of football expenses. The average salary for an FCS head coach (the conference UTRGV will play in, if the fee-increase passes), ranged between $194k to $303k. By contrast salaries for volleyball, swim and dive, and softball head coaches ranged from $27k to $77k. Head football coach benefit packages, usually paid for by "third-party" donors, include a country club membership, car stipend, clothing, housing, and entertainment allowances, speaking fees, media income, and “shoe and apparel income,” before 8 to 10 “assistant coaches” are hired.

Lastly, the study demonstrated the existence of vast economic wealth of the RGV. When combined the cities of Brownsville, Harlingen, Pharr, Edinburg and McAllen rival markets like Albuquerque, New Mexico and El Paso, in population, median income, number of businesses and retail sales. In 2012, for instance, they totaled $9 billion in retail sales, fourth-most compared to peers. Meanwhile, tuition and fees are on the rise across the country, including in the RGV. In this economic situation, worsening daily with unending inflation, why should young people just getting started in life put up investment capital for a private venture primarily set to make money for the local rich?

Excerpts of referenced feasibility study data and research:

Nationally, student debt has risen more than one-hundred percent in the last decade. Older generations also struggle with student debt, not just millennials. Although administrators who are sensitive to concerns about student debt coordinate conveniently-timed media coverage about “scholarship” programs, such coverage has misled people into mistakenly thinking tuition and fees will automatically be paid for any student whose household earns less than 100k a year. This is false. A look at the fine-print shows funds are actually limited and based on many conditions including a “first-come, first-serve basis.”

No matter the amount of programs the press covers on the eve of this referendum, no amount of scholarships or “donations” which always come with strings attached for students will end the student debt crisis nationwide or internationally. Even Hinojosa showed at both town halls that 56% of all students and almost half of aid-recipients pay some out-of-pocket expenses, around $900 on average.

UTRGV Brownsville athletics fee referendum town hall, 14 October 2021.

Officials emphasize the perks and de-emphasize costs of accrued interest, over time. This “absurdity,” as characterized by graphic design student Juan Antonio Almaguer at the Brownsville town hall where he was rushed and told to refrain from commenting, expands when considering football is academically unnecessary and in the final analysis probably net harmful. Page 78 of the feasibility study, for example, tells the story of Winthrop University who did not launch a football team for it would have compromised academic and other institutional priorities. Many universities have arrived at similar conclusions, including UTRGV. If football improved academic quality, why did UTRGV table it (rightly) to focus on its probationary accreditation in its early years?

Although referendums may carry the veneer of popular will, they can nevertheless be undemocratic instruments for manufacturing consent. Failing to disclose crucial information and limiting/stifling discussion undermines informed voting. Referendums are especially undemocratic if the affected party cannot vote. Hinojosa also said at the town halls and interviews that this November’s vote will be the first referendum at either legacy institution in more than 15 years. In fact students at both campuses approved UTRGV SGA’s founding constitution in Spring 2015. It was the result of a collaboration between both institution's SGAs, in which Mauricio Lomeli Martinez and Jonathan participated although they opposed the final draft for many reasons.

Additionally, university officials led at the time by Interim Pres. Dr. Havidan Rodriguez undercut an effort by an SGA committee led by Mauricio and Jonathan in the Fall of 2014 and Spring of 2015. It placed the “Vaquero” mascot and school colors to a vote by the Edinburg student body. This administration-sponsored referendum now before us is encouraged by some of the same officials who helped crush our efforts then. Administrators support referendums that advance their interests and crush those which challenge their edicts.

History suggests student referendums are mere formalities. As discovered by students at Stephen F. Austin in 2016 and East Carolina University in 2019, both of whom rejected proposed fee-increases to support football, their football programs and (in the case of ECU) the fee-increase persisted and passed by the board of regents regardless of student dissent. One placard at a protest against the proposed athletics fee in Nacogdoches read, “This is a school, not a country club!” We nonetheless encourage students to seriously consider if you would support this fee-increase, for those who do, if you incurred it yourself?

Administrators appeal to greed and selfishness, assuring “only future students” will pay the extra $11.25 per credit hour on top of the existing $15 p.c.h. until 2025 when all will pay the increased fee regardless of original enrollment date. UT Regents might impose football at UTRGV regardless, but you don’t have to co-sign the generational injustice for which administrators are seeking student complicity. Recent comments made by Dean of the College of Fine Arts Steven Block, dismissing football expenses as “a very small portion of Athletics,” are rendered false by the research presented in this article. This notion is further undermined by concerns voiced by students. Those who minimize costs to working students, for the greater glory of the university’s “image” or because their academic division might directly or indirectly benefit, have different interests than those who must sell their labor in order to survive.

Bruno Rosales, a junior philosophy and history major, eloquently rose up at the town hall in Edinburg. He was also rushed and told to refrain from making comments by the host organization whose motto is, “Your voice is our priority!” He phrased it well, nevertheless: “I have a scholarship. If it wasn’t for that, I couldn’t even pay my tuition. I have two jobs, and I’m not living any of that “student life” that they’re speaking of. So, why are they having that student life while we cannot have any kind of life because our wages are so low?”

As with all class-divided society, the concentrated wealth of a privileged minority is made possible by the necessary exploitation of the majority’s collective labor. Student athletes, who risk their health and lives, are the unpaid labor of college sports despite recent "reforms" allowing brand sponsorships. Current and former “student athletes”, a legal term used by universities to justify refusal to pay workers’ compensation to injured athletes, have recently launched their own associations. The class-struggle in college sports is very real.

While officials argue student fees are a minor funding source for football and football a meager aspect of athletics, they have it both ways when claiming it cannot be funded without student fees. In which case we urge students to demand that UTRGV open their books and publish their football "business plan" for public inspection. If they and the local capitalist class and their privileged hangers-on, who failed Nov 2. to gain taxpayer money for a sporting stadium in Cameron County, insist on their Saturday afternoon leisure activity then we insist they pay for it themselves.

UTRGV has justified incrementally but steadily increasing costs by “locking-in” tuition, similarly promising students that fee-increases will only affect future generations. As a consequence, UTRGV's average tuition is more than twice what it was in 2015. This "locking-in" maneuver, cynically portrayed as a service, creates a two-tiered system. Around the country, workers like those at John Deere, Kellogg, Warrior Met Coal and Exxon in Beaumont, have rejected two-tiered contracts that consign new hires to fewer benefits and less pay. Bosses similarly appeal to generational divisions like UTRGV leadership, asking one generation to burden the next. The strikers’ generational solidarity, however, persists as an example to the world.

Which generation of RGV students will finally stand up for the next and say enough is enough?


As we go to print, Cameron County voters head to polls. UTRGV students will vote November 8 thru 10.

Update: Cameron County voters rejected tax proposal to fund athletics stadiums.


This article was edited to correct our original reporting which said UTRGV athletics director, Chasse Conque, claimed "FCS" was the focus of the 2016 feasibility study. He in fact said "FBS" was the primary focus of the study, which is still incorrect as the study was balanced and if anything focused slightly more on FCS case studies. 4 November 2021, 2:12 p.m. CST.

This article was edited to correct original reporting which stated Winthrop University dropped a college football program in 2016 due to an inability to maintain costs. Actually, Winthrop decided to not launch a football program for fiscal worries. 4 November 2021, 3:24 p.m. CST.

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