Big Time Money, Big Time Turmoil: UW Athletics in the Era of Big Business


The business tsunami rolling through big-time college sports has turned over just about every desk, ball rack and bench in the athletics department at the University of Washington. I’m trying to confirm a rumor that the marching band is in negotiations to join Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour.

Of the 22 starters on the team that reached the College Football Playoff championship game, two remain — cornerback Elijah Jackson and linebacker Alphonzo Tuputala. Jeff Fisch is the fourth head football coach in six years, plus nearly all the assistant coaches are new. Succeeding fired men’s basketball coach Bob Hopkins is Danny Sprinkle, who at least knew where the stadium was since his dad, Bill, was a UW defensive back in the 1960s (that was also the last period when the 520 interchange with Montlake Boulevard was fully open for more than a week at a time). The identities of Sprinkle’s players reportedly will be revealed in October, after he scouts the baggage carousel at Sea-Tac Airport one last time for random tall guys coming to town.

The department is on its third athletics director in 10 months. Pat Chun was poached from Washington State to replace Troy Dannen, who was poached after five months on the UW job by Nebraska. Dannen succeeded Jen Cohen, a local who was as purple as purple gets until she was poached by USC in August. Her resume was buffed by the poaching of Kalen DeBoer from Fresno State. But after two seasons in Montlake, including 14-1 last season, he was poached by Alabama.

And of course, the Big Ten Conference earlier poached Washington and Oregon after it poached USC and UCLA, blowing the Pac-12 Conference out of existence — with the possible exception of Washington State and Oregon State, the orphans known as The Unpoachables. They still have their names on the derelict property, should anyone care to buy.

Hard to say whether this degree of disruption for Washington is unique, or merely typical around the college sports world right now. Also unknowable is whether it portends long-term good or ill for college sports fans. For now, it has chapped many, especially in Pullman. The Cougars village was so irked about Chun’s decampment to the rival that the red glow from the Palouse could be seen from Snoqualmie Pass.

What is known is the convulsion is the result of the rapid onset of professionalization of college athletics. The NCAA and its power five conferences signaled their official abdication of amateurism in late May when they settled a class-action antitrust lawsuit. It included more than $2.75 billion, to be paid over 10 years, in back-pay damages owed to former Division I athletes, as well as a plan for a future revenue sharing model between power-conference schools and athletes.

Jeffrey Kessler, an attorney for the players and a longtime adversary of the NCAA panjandrums, said in a statement, “We have been marching down this long legal road seeking economic justice in college sports for more than a decade, but the time to bring a fair compensation system to college athletes has finally arrived.”

A press release about the settlement said that the amount per power five school is projected to be “significantly more than $20 million per school, per year.” Most of that will come from media revenues withheld.

Unsurprisingly, one of Chun’s initial ordeals as UW AD was to deliver some of this bad financial news to the Board of Regents. But the Thursday meeting wasn’t about the costs associated with the settlement. He identified a more immediate cash crunch: Turns out athletics has to come up with $29.6 million in one-time expenses before UW moves this fall to the Big Ten. The biggest chunk is for a TV studio in Hec Ed for the conference network. Because the failing Pac-12 Network has ceased to exist, the school must broadcast and stream its games to the new conference. The Seattle Times story outlines the details, but no mention was made of the NCAA settlement costs because the details are pending.

Since the Huskies and Ducks for several years will get only half-shares of the Big Ten’s annual media rights distributions — starting at about $30 million per year, still better than a full share of the old Pac-12 — they will need big help from private donors already funding NIL payments to players. They also can borrow $10 million per year interest-free from the Big Ten against future distributions and will take a $10 million advance from Fox Sports.

Apart from Washington, teams and conferences also are eyeing an option fresh to college sports, as well as American pro sports — private equity financing. It’s already under consideration by the Big 12 Conference, which trails the Big Ten and SEC in revenues. College presidents won’t like the PE whales intruding on campus business, but they should have thought about that well before wasting all those legal fees hopelessly defending amateurism. CBS Sports reported that the conference is talking with CVC Capital Partners about investing $800 million to $1 billion in exchange for a stake of 15 to 20 percent in the Big 12.

The same conference is also talking about selling the naming rights to the league. Action Network reported that Allstate Insurance will offer between $30 million to $50 million in order to call it the Big Allstate Conference or the Allstate 12 Conference. The practice is fairly common in European sports leagues.

It shouldn’t be that long before player uniforms look like the driver suits in F1 and NASCAR. Perhaps schools can sell the jersey space traditionally reserved for the player’s name to a sponsor and give the kid the proceeds. That should make for some splendid TV play-by-play calls: “Thaddeus Jones of Beacon Plumbing opened the hole for Taco Time’s Chauncey Smith to run loose.”

So yes, the sporting life at Montlake has been upended. The smart advice is to keep to the high ground. More waves are coming.

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at


  1. Private equity is the most sensical way forward. Every other league besides the NFL dearly wants access to PE capital, and NCAA schools getting a piece of that action should make the ADs’ fundraising duties less oppressive. I’ve never been a fan of jersey sponsors on non-motorsports uniforms, but soccer and rugby made me used to them, and I think those would be inevitable for NCAA teams. (Except for Penn State football.)

  2. There is no “sensible way forward”. When lawyers talk about economic justice and fair compensation, (among other things) it is really just dog-whistle for saying the non/low – revenue sports can go to hell. The ever-stronger the link between “free enterprise”, revenue generation and player compensation ultimately portends the outright dismantling of Title IX and the protections it afforded to women’s sports – BB, softball volleyball etc. as courts continue to uphold the concept of college athletes as employees and not student-athletes.

    A review of UW’s athletic department budget obviously reveals what we already know about intercollegiate athletes – that generally only men’s football and (depending on school) men’s basketball pay for themselves. And if you think private equity is the answer guess again. Having had the displeasure of working for a company taken over by private equity, I can state with great confidence the PE whores care only about one thing – positive cash flow. So while all the high-minded useful idiots that continue to prattle naively about fair compensation and employee rights, rest assured that such compensation and rights will come at the expense/destruction of women’s sports…

  3. Art – you had presciently predicted this big time college sports tsunami since the meteoric splash long ago that began when big time college sports detached from the institutions’ educational/research mission statements. Bravo.

    Extra credit for working “panjandrums” into the column.

    Mike (Boog) Berger


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