While University of Oregon students protested against a 10.6 percent proposed tuition hike in March, the Associated Students of University of Oregon (ASUO) voted to transfer $10,000 to the UO athletic department.

ASUO’s hope was that the one-time payment would help improve its relationship with the athletic department — which brings in $110 million a year — and dissuade it from pulling out of the agreement that provides students with tickets to football and men’s basketball games.

It was a gamble that came with little assurance of paying off and gave students nothing concrete in return.

ASUO currently spends about $1.7 million per year — more than 10 percent of the “incidental fee” budget it controls — on athletic tickets. Under the agreement, the athletic department sells ASUO tickets to home Ducks football and men’s basketball games for about 75 percent of their “fair market value,” as determined by athletics.

But athletics seeks to receive closer to 80 percent of the tickets’ fair market value — a benchmark informally agreed upon by athletics and past ASUO leadership — so annually it asks students to pay more money for the same number of tickets.

For the past three years, ASUO has refused to pay any extra without getting additional tickets in return.

The relationship between the two sides is strained. Athletics at one point took away 300 student football tickets because ASUO refused to pay a 3-percent increase for the same number of tickets. Fourteen ASUO senators then signed a petition demanding athletics stop cutting tickets and calling its actions “greedy and deplorable.”

This year, growing increasingly frustrated with students’ refusal to pay extra, the athletic department considered discontinuing its agreement with ASUO altogether. If that were to happen, athletics could either attempt to sell tickets directly to students who could afford them or seek to establish a new “athletics fee” through the Tuition and Fees Advisory Board (TFAB).

Realizing the danger of losing the agreement, a series of ASUO governing bodies decided to pay athletics $10,000 in an effort to keep the peace and show ASUO “wants to work with” athletics, former ASUO President Quinn Haaga said.

Quinn Haaga of the ‘I’m With UO’ slate was the ASUO president for the 2016-2017 school year (Cole Elsasser/Emerald).

“The ASUO wants to have as positive a relationship with athletics as possible,” said Haaga, who left office on May 24. “I think a lot of students would agree that it’s one of the most key things ASUO funds, and we wouldn’t want athletics to break off and create their own fee.”

Still, there is no guarantee the $10,000 payment to athletics will accomplish anything. Nothing prevents the athletic department from abandoning the non-binding agreement.

Keegan Williams-Thomas, chair of ASUO’s Athletic and Contracts Finance Committee, which negotiates the ticket agreement with athletics, said the payment was a gesture recognizing that the agreement amount had not been adjusted in several years and “a way to maintain the relationship without escalating costs directly.”

Even after the payment, though, Williams-Thomas is uncertain whether athletics was pleased with the payment amount and whether it will exit the agreement in the near future. The athletic department, after all, asked ASUO this year to pay a 4-percent increase, or about $40,000, and ASUO ended up paying $10,000.

“I have no reason to believe they would be displeased, but I can’t give you a gut-pull quote about how many high-fives there were,” Williams-Thomas said. “They weren’t unpleased, certainly.”

Eric Roedl, the athletic department’s chief financial officer who negotiates the agreement with ASUO, said via email that the athletic department appreciates ASUO’s effort.

“We appreciate this effort from ASUO given the student ticket agreement will remain flat for the fourth consecutive year in 2017-18,” Roedl said. “Student engagement at athletic events is important to us and makes the college athletics environment unique.”

Roedl, however, said the athletic department will likely ask students for more money next year anyway.

The cost of a ‘championship experience’

ASUO’s agreement with athletics dictates the amount of money students spend on sports tickets. Under the current agreement, $71 of each student’s mandatory incidental fee goes toward sports tickets, whether or not the student chooses to attend games.

Those 23,634 students are then left to fight over 3,948 tickets to home conference football games, 1,849 tickets to home nonconference football games and 1,854 tickets to home men’s basketball games. Those are distributed via a first-come-first-served online “lottery” system; but tickets often run out within seconds after becoming available.

The agreement also includes admission to Oregon’s 16 other varsity teams’ sporting events, which aren’t in high enough demand to necessitate the use of the lottery system.

On average, ASUO pays about $215,000 per home football game and $25,000 per home men’s basketball game. That amounts to $66.26 per football ticket and $13.62 per ticket to men’s basketball games.

Last year’s Stanford and Washington football games — which the Ducks lost by a combined 74 points — cost students more than $670,000 alone.

Two-thousand one-hundred students pay an additional $252 to $314 for season-ticket packages, which guarantee them admission to home football games.

In total, students pay $2.3 million for athletic tickets, not including any other tickets students pay for out of their own pockets.

Two students run up the steps after the gates open. The Oregon Ducks hold the annual spring game at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon on Saturday, April 30, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

During an interview with the Emerald in March, Roedl said that the cost of operating the Oregon athletic department has grown significantly in recent years, and athletics asks ASUO for more money each year to come closer to meeting its 80-percent benchmark.

“When you look big picture, our objective is to provide a championship experience for our student-athletes and for all of our fans and supporters,” Roedl said. “Certainly the UO student body is part of that, and the cost of fulfilling that championship experience has risen a lot in recent years.”

Roedl said providing a “championship experience” includes marketing efforts such as shoe and apparel giveaways at games.

The athletic department’s overall objective, Roedl said, is “to maximize student attendance and participation in athletics and to keep it as affordable as possible.” But athletics in the past has shown little willingness to ease the financial burden on students.

Two years ago, the athletic department asked ASUO to pay a 10-percent increase for the same number of tickets. When students refused, the athletic department lowered its request to 3 percent and threatened to take tickets away from ASUO’s allotment if students didn’t pay it.

Outraged, 14 ASUO senators, including Haaga, signed a petition urging the athletic department not to cut student tickets. They were “infuriated” and noted that the 3-percent increase the athletic department requested was almost the same amount by which Roedl’s salary had increased that year.

Students refused to pay extra, and the athletic department followed through on its threat. It took 300 seats at Autzen Stadium out of the “lottery” system and sold them back to students individually as season-ticket packages for $300 each.

Students ended up getting those tickets back last year, largely as a result of persistent negotiating with athletics by former ASUO finance director Shawn Stevenson and former ACFC chair Andrew Dunn, who was director of staff under Haaga.

This year, athletics requested another 4-percent increase, even though prices for regular season-ticket holders are decreasing.

“Really the reason behind the 4-percent ask is that we’ve been frozen for so long and we’re trying to just catch up a little bit with the [incidental fee],” Roedl said.

Dunn said each year Roedl and other athletic department officials “come to the table very frustrated that the conversation is the same.” Students want to pay less, but athletic department officials wants them to pay more, so the end result remains unchanged.

“They don’t think about how any sort of change in these fees or tuition will actually impact the students here on our campus,” Dunn said. “Asking students to pay more for their student athletic tickets in a year where tuition is supposed to go up almost 11 percent is a little ridiculous.”

In fact, both tuition costs and athletic department revenues have roughly doubled in the past decade.

Dunn said “there is always concern that students will lose tickets” if they don’t meet the athletic department’s demands.

“They could easily just be like, ‘We’re done.’ That would be a huge blow to student autonomy,” Dunn said. “The fact that we get to control how much we pay for student tickets is crucial in my mind.”

Fans fill up the student section. The Oregon Ducks play the Colorado Buffaloes at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. on Sept. 24, 2016. (Kaylee Domzalski/Emerald)

The prospect of an athletics fee

If the athletic department pulled out of the agreement and establish its own student athletics fee — something many other schools have in place — then TFAB would have the final say over student ticket costs, as opposed to ASUO.

Haaga said that would be “really dangerous” because TFAB has little student oversight. It is the same committee that approved a 10.6 percent tuition increase for residents and 3-percent increase for non-residents in March despite intense criticism from students.

“There would be virtually no student oversight over that,” Haaga said. “There are only a few students on that committee, and if they don’t know what to be looking for, then I think that the athletics fee could just grow exponentially without a lot of checks and balances.”

According to a Washington Post examination of financial records of 52 public universities in the NCAA’s five wealthiest conferences, students at 32 schools paid a combined $125.5 million in athletics fees in 2014. Those fees were not limited to student tickets to games.

At the time of the Post’s report, Virginia had just increased its student fee from $388 to $657. Florida State students were paying $237 per year, and Maryland students were paying $406. Those three schools combined to make more than $30 million on the backs of students.

Alabama got rid of its student athletics fee a few years ago, as did Missouri.

Roedl said the athletic department has discussed with ASUO possible “alternative processes” for student ticketing and will continue to do so in the future. But he said at this point the athletic department does not plan to exit the agreement.

“We cannot speculate on how the student ticketing process may change in the future; however, at this point in time there are no plans in place to change the process,” Roedl said via email.

Dunn, however, said the athletic department will likely pursue a separate student athletics fee next year. Williams-Thomas wasn’t sure.

“That’s a possibility — that I will say,” Williams-Thomas said, “but I can’t state that there’s any real likelihood necessarily.”

What is more certain is that athletics will most likely ask students to pay more money for the same number of tickets next year. The $10,000 payment does not appear to have changed that.

“The 2018-19 proposal process is still several months away, however, it is likely athletics will propose a modest increase to the student ticketing agreement,” Roedl said. “The agreement has been flat for four consecutive years while the cost of providing UO students an outstanding game-day experience rises annually.”

Follow Kenny Jacoby on Twitter @kennyjacoby