TAMPA, Florida -- The University of South Florida has had a number of recent highlights on the athletic fields and courts, standing tall against some of the biggest NCAA powerhouses in the country. But it's getting harder for USF to compete, at least financially.
A 10Investigates analysis of last year's USF athletics budget reveals growing expenses and shrinking revenues, forcing students and USF Foundation to balance the budget.
According to a report USF filed with the NCAA in January, the program ran a budget deficit in fiscal year 2015 and needed to withdraw money from the USF Foundation to help close the gap. Meanwhile, students picked up another $16.7 million in varsity athletic costs via student fees.
The student fees per credit-hour on USF's Tampa campus, $14.46, have not changed since 2012. But as enrollment and course loads have increased, so have the contributions to the athletic program: up from $16.2 million two years prior. Students at the university's other campuses help pay for USF athletics, too.
On average, full-time students pay approximately $400 a year in student fees -- on top of their tuition bills -- to USF Athletics.
The figures are not unusual for newer athletic programs trying to compete at the NCAA's top levels. But for schools like USF that find themselves outside the NCAA's major conferences, the pressures to increase spending more, just like the schools in the "Power Five": the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12, are only growing.
USF plays in the American Athletic Conference (AAC), one of the "Group of Five" conferences that earn considerably less revenue from television rights and the NCAA. Other conferences include the MAC, MWC, Sun Belt, and C-USA.
"There are financial challenges at USF," said Yulander Wells, the program's chief financial officer. "(But) there are financial challenges for other schools in the 'Group of Five.' There are financial challenges for (schools in) the 'Power Five,' too."
USF students get free tickets to all home athletic events -- and thanks to successes in sports such as women's basketball, men's golf, and men's tennis -- USF enjoyed its highest finish in the Learfield Director's Cup standings last year (73rd), which takes into account dozens of varsity sports.
"The students are our No. 1 donors. And we want to make sure that we make them proud...and that they come out," Wells said.
But in the sports that matter most to USF's budget -- men's basketball and football -- years of struggles are taking a toll on the department's revenues.
USF's revenue from ticket sales dropped 20% from 2014 to 2015, down to $4.2 million. Non-football sports brought in roughly $900,000, the same as 2014. But football ticket sales dropped from $4.1 million to $3.3 million in 2015. The school says things are turning around in 2016, with season ticket numbers on the rise again.
But along with fewer fans in the stands, the football team has also suffered from fewer booster contributions in recent years. Since 2013, annual contributions to USF have dropped more than a million dollars, mostly due to sagging interest in the football program. It wasn't until December 2015 that the Bulls went to their first bowl game since 2010.
For comparison, USF's $2.4 million in total contributions from boosters pales in comparison to the $25 million Florida State University athletics collected in 2015 and the $55 million the University of Florida Athletics Association brought in. The University of Central Florida brought in about $10 million in contributions last year, but its budget was also strained by bonds on its new football stadium.
Compounding the revenue challenges for USF are falling revenues related to the split of the Big East. The conference's football-playing schools became the AAC, which is no longer considered one of the NCAA's power conferences.
IRS filings from the American Athletic Conference reveal considerably fewer TV and tournament-related dollars coming into the conference in the last few years, which has meant fewer dollars going to its member schools. The most recent payout data available from the conference indicates USF received $12.2 million from the AAC in 2012, but only $8.5 million in 2013.
READ: AAC 2014 IRS filing
Last year, USA TODAY spotlighted the new challenges for member-schools of the "Group of Five" conferences on the outside of - looking in on - the NCAA's power structure. It also included a comprehensive list of every public NCAA athletic program's budget and reliance on student & government subsidies.
As the NCAA's biggest programs continue to spend more on coaches, facilities, recruiting, and support staff, schools in the Group of Five try and keep up. Additionally, the NCAA's allowance of a "cost of attendance" stipend for student-athletes adds an additional expense to any cash-strapped program trying to compete at the highest levels.
At USF, full scholarship athletes now receive between $4,100 and $4,500 cash to cover expenses such as labs, books, and other living expenses. With 226 scholarships awarded each year, USF faced an immediate expense of nearly $1 million from the NCAA's rule change in 2014.
USF also gave Head Football Coach Willie Taggart a raise and contract extension after he led the Bulls to seven wins in their final eight regular-season games. The deal included perks such as two courtesy SUVs, a country club membership, and a luxury box at every USF home game.
Taggart also got an additional $550,000 to spend on assistant coaches in 2016, an increase of 29% from the previous year's $1.9 million. That pool grows to $2.6 million in 2017, and by another $100,000 each ensuing year
The elephant in the room: a new stadium
USF says it hasn't had more than preliminary discussions about an on-campus football stadium, but students tell 10News they'd love to see one -- at a reasonable price. But whether student and alumni participation would grow enough to warrant the additional costs remains debatable.
A new stadium could cost upward of $100 million, which would likely be bonded out over 30 years and paid for through a combination of student fees, public funds, and future revenues created.
Right now, USF pays about a million dollars a year to rent Raymond James Stadium, an expense small enough that the football program has typically been able to turn an operating profit large enough to fund several other varsity sports. But in 2015, falling contributions and ticket sales meant football failed to turn a profit for the first time in recent memory. 10Investigates began tracking the statistic with the 2011 budget year.