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Why the new tax law could hurt Nebraska

When President Trump signed off on the $1.5 trillion makeover of the tax code in late December, he landed a right uppercut to the chin of Nebraska and other big-time college athletic programs.

That’s because of a provision in the tax law regarding college athletics seating rights.

The long-running and much-debated tax rule allowed boosters to deduct 80 percent of donations related to season tickets largely for football and men’s basketball. That perk officially ended on Dec. 31.

With its demise, some college sports experts believe the change will crimp athletic department budgets, lead to higher ticket prices for football and basketball games at many schools, and cause some schools to eliminate men’s and women’s sports programs that help feed U.S. Olympic teams.

The new tax laws that went into effect in 2018 could change the financial landscape of Division I athletics going forward.
The new tax laws that went into effect in 2018 could change the financial landscape of Division I athletics going forward. (Associated Press)

This seat-rights perk, which rewarded those who gave the most for the best seats and suites, has become common practice at many Division I schools.

At Nebraska, for example, many sections at Memorial Stadium require season ticket holders to make an annual donation of anywhere from $150 per seat to $2,500 -- plus the cost or the tickets. Many seats at the Pinnacle Bank Arena also require annual donations ($50 per seat to $3,000 for courtside) for the right to purchase season tickets. Luxury suites inside Memorial Stadium run just over $100,000 per year and are signed on 10-year lease agreements.

This elimination of this provision in the tax law “is going to have a huge impact,” said Tom McMillen, the former Maryland basketball star and Congressman who is president and chief executive of Lead1 Association, an advocacy group for college athletic directors.

In a telephone interview with HuskerOnline, McMillen estimated that ending the tax deduction “is going to cost our schools in the hundreds of millions of dollars...There’s no clever way to navigate it.”

Other college athletics observers wouldn’t go that far, saying it was too early to predict the practical impact of rescinding the tax deduction related to seating rights.

For now, athletic department officials at Nebraska are taking a wait-and-see approach on the potential costs and effects.

“Like other athletic departments around the country, we will monitor the potential impact of the tax law changes,” said spokesman Keith Mann. “But we are confident that our donors and ticket holders will continue to support Nebraska athletics with the same loyalty and passion they have for decades.”

He also noted that football season ticket prices for 2018 have been set and those remain the same as in 2017; $57 per game for a total of $399 before any seat donations are factored in.

Making the pitch

Nebraska’s athletic department -- like many other big college sports programs around the country -- began tracking the tax reform changes and other proposals that could have impacted college athletic finances as details started to emerge in November.

The department sent two notices to its approximately 17,000 donors -- one in early December and again shortly before Christmas. Both letters explained the advantages of submitting contributions before Dec. 31.

The notes, signed by Athletic Director Bill Moos, indicated that donors who paid their contributions in full by the end of 2017 would also receive 15 “bonus” priority points to be used for the upcoming 2018-2019 season.

Priority points are calculated based on giving to Nebraska athletics. They are calculated based on 3 points for every $100 of current year giving and 1 point for every $100 of past or future year giving. The points can be used for such things as tickets for football away games and post-season play, the men’s basketball conference tournament, and for acquiring additional season tickets.

Gifts that are 100 percent tax deductible are not eligible for priority points.

Moos’ letters encouraged individuals to consult with a tax specialist to assess the impact of the new law.

Moos concluded by thanking donors for their “unwavering support” of Nebraska athletics through the years.

“Our donors always have the opportunity to submit their contributions” before Dec. 31, said Mann. And like recent years, he added, “we had good response from donors choosing to submit their contribution before the end of the year.”

Mann declined to provide any dollar amounts associated with the year-end donor response.

But to gain a sense of the potential dollars, Nebraska’s 2016-2017 athletic department annual report noted that its 16,993 donors from 49 states and four countries provided $36 million in support of the Student Athlete Experience Fund.

The Student Athlete fund is the athletic department’s primary outlet for donations, but there are other programs such as endowments, planned giving and naming-rights opportunities.

Despite the money at stake, Nebraska’s year-end pitch to donors was decidedly a soft-sell compared to other big-time programs.

Oklahoma, for example, pushed its “Pay It Forward” program in an urgent note to boosters.

According to a Washington Post story, the letter sent to Sooner booster club members included hypothetical situations in which “Jane Donor” should consider making multiple years’ worth of her $5,000 annual donation and “Joe and Jane Donor,” who pledged $150,000 over three years for premium seating, should consider sending the entire amount before the end of the year.

Ending the 80 percent tax deduction should not have caught athletic departments flat-footed. As McMillen of Lead1 said, there had been two other efforts, including one from the Obama administration in 2015, to end the write-offs. But both were shot down.

Here is a breakdown of the 2018 donations required for seats in Memorial Stadium before the $399 cost per ticket is factored in.
Here is a breakdown of the 2018 donations required for seats in Memorial Stadium before the $399 cost per ticket is factored in.

Seating rights 

What’s the price of admission for some of the best seats to a football game at Memorial Stadium?

Sometimes it goes way beyond the face value of the ticket, and it has nothing to do with scalping or ticket brokers. But it has everything to do with generating revenue for scholarships and other student-athlete programs.

Seating-rights fees are one reason why Nebraska is one of a handful of major conference schools that generate more revenue than expenses -- with a healthy cushion left over from ticket sales, television rights, marketing and such to funnel into scholarships for non student-athletes.

Nebraska, which has a $130 million operating budget in athletics for the current fiscal year, is also a rare breed in that it is self-sufficient -- no institutional support from student activity fees and state money. And as the department’s annual report noted, all donations go directly toward helping its 660 student-athletes rather than for administrative costs.

So, suppose you want seats in Section 230, rows 8 through 14. Those seats, in what’s called the “Outdoor Club,” require an annual donation value of $1,500 per seat, according to the athletic department seating map.

What about field-level seats, say in Section 27, rows 5-12? Those require a $2,000 per seat donation. In the “400 Level,” seats check Section 29, rows 5-12; those are valued at $1,500 per seat. Section 36, rows 20-30 are valued at $750. Section 18, rows 68-78; those require $150 per seat. And so it goes.

For men’s basketball at Pinnacle Bank Arena, club seating requires a $1,000 per seat donation plus $432 for the season-ticket package. For “100 Level” seats, fans must pay a $250 per seat donation along with $360 for the season ticket.

Keep in mind, said Mann, that many seats at Pinnacle and Memorial Stadium do not require donations.

Ending a special interest loophole 

Tax law experts have long criticized college athletics donations deductions and the trade-off for tickets as unfair because the practice in real terms gives a federal subsidy to wealthy college sports fans.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, a Republican from Texas, told the Austin American-Statesman shortly before the passage of the final tax bill that the college sports deduction was “the epitome of a special interest loophole...For the sake of providing fairness to all taxpayers, this college sports quid pro quo needs to end.”

College athletic departments did dodge one other punch in the new tax law. A provision that would have taxed royalties a college receives from licensing its name or logo was dropped from the final legislation.

What's the impact 

Will athletic departments resort to raising ticket prices? What about belt-tightening by cutting departmental waste and trimming administrative positions? Will donors look beyond a lost tax break and continue to support dear old State U?

It’s too early to draw any conclusions, but like any business, there are consequences for losing revenue.

McMillen, of Lead1, believes the new tax provision could result in colleges cutting some sports programs that feed Olympic teams, such as track and field, women’s softball, swimming, and gymnastics.

College athletic departments “spend over $2 billion a year supporting Olympic sports,” he said. And “you’re taking away tools to do that at some level” by taking away the tax break.

McMillen also said people lose sight of the fact that there are a tremendous number of college student-athletes who don’t participate in the glamor sports, athletes who could lose out on a college or Olympic experience.

“It’s a very sad consequence,” McMillen said. “Only 20,000 are football and basketball players. There are 57,000 who play other sports. If you are going to tax football and basketball (by ending the donation write-off), you are going to hurt these other sports.”

Steve Rosen covers business of sports topics for Questions, comments, ideas? Reach Rosen at