BYU’s athletic program doesn’t see a dime of the monetary support BYU gets from LDS Church tithing money, according to Duff Tittle, associate athletic director of communications. An athletic booster organization called the Cougar Club fuels the sports events BYU fans know and love.
Booster organizations exist to support many university athletic departments, including Power 5 programs like the University of Alabama and the University of North Carolina. BYU’s Cougar Club is doing what it can to be competitive with these big athletic programs in the NCAA.
Former BYU communications professor Raymond Beckham co-founded the Cougar Club in 1963 as a way to help fund travel costs associated with recruiting. He first set the annual membership cost at $100, which he said was unheard of at that time.
Now, Beckham pays $2,000 annually to maintain his membership, and he thinks athletics have become too expensive in general. Schools provide money for scholarships, housing, books and more just to be competitive to recruits, according to Beckham. Donations from the Cougar Club contribute to not only recruiting student-athletes but also stadiums, facilities, equipment and salaries of coaches and staff.
Beckham expressed his frustration for the increased competition among athletic programs and the dramatic increase in annual membership fees for the Cougar Club, but he also recognizes such challenges are seemingly unavoidable. Beckham believes that while the cost of BYU athletics has gone up for fans and donors, the program still doesn’t have as much money as bigger schools.
“It’s really good, but it’s underpriced, it’s under-financed,” Beckham said. “We’re doing remarkably well on the money that we have.”
BYU’s Cougar Club includes six lower membership levels ranging from $60 to $2,500 annually and six higher levels (Legacy I -VI) that include a substantial one-time contribution ranging from $10,000 to $500,000 with annual renewals from $1,250 to $3,500. The ultimate “Athletic Director’s Circle” includes anyone who has given a one-time $1,000,000 donation and does not require an annual renewal fee.
Tittle said Cougar Club donations were one of a few major sources of revenue. Other revenue streams include corporate sponsors, media partners like ESPN and season tickets.
Football season tickets for 2017, as they appear online, range from $220 to $500, although some tickets reserved for higher level Cougar Club members do not have prices shown on the BYU tickets website. Basketball season tickets for the 2017-18 season range from $60 bench seats to $850 first row seats.
“Ticket revenue, in general, is really important to us, specifically in football and men’s basketball,” Tittle said. “They generate a lot of the revenue that we end up using to run the other programs.”
Tittle mentioned the importance of finding a balance between raising prices for more revenue and remaining affordable for BYU fans.
“We realize we’re trying to run a Top 25 program,” Tittle said. “It takes a lot of revenue to do that, and the support that we get from donors and the ticket holders and those who buy individual tickets play a big role in what we do.”
Retired software executive and Legacy V Cougar Club member Mark Cluff became a donor 16 years ago to support BYU athletics and the mission of the university. For him, athletics is a form of missionary work.
“I’ve seen as the team does well, or as an individual like Jimmer Fredette does well, it shows favorably on the university and therefore shows favorably on the church,” Cluff said. “The mission of the church moves forward.”
Cluff hasn’t noticed any major price raises in the past few years as a Cougar Club member and the cost of his membership is a price he evaluates in his budget every year. It’s a price he’s willing to pay.
For Michael Middleton, who is the Executive Director of the Cougar Club, athletic donations are the most powerful variable in remaining competitive in the NCAA.
“We’re always looking for new ways and new opportunities to bring people in,” Middleton said. “We’ve really worked in recent years to explain there’s a membership level for every budget.”
BYU’s Cougar Club and the University of Utah’s Crimson Club membership fees don’t look much different. The Crimson Club includes 10 levels ranging from $100 to $40,000. The major difference, however, can be seen in season ticket prices.
Season tickets for Utah football and basketball include a Crimson Club donation in the total price of each ticket. The ticket prices range from $235 to $3,395 with the prime 50-yard closer-to-the-front rows of seats costing $1,200. Season tickets for Ute Basketball range from $100 to $3,100 with mid-level lower bowl seats costing $500 plus a required $500 Crimson Club donation, totaling $1,000.
In comparison, University of North Carolina’s basketball team won the NCAA tournament this year and its athletic booster organization is called The Rams Club. Season tickets for basketball are based on a point system delegated by the amount of money an individual gives each year.
The Rams Club membership prices include 10 levels ranging from $25 to $25,000 annually. The lowest level is called the Student Ram. Excluding this level aimed at students, the lowest price level starts at $100.
The general season ticket package available to non-Rams Club members for the 2016-17 season costs $670 per seat and was on the upper level of the Smith Center, according to the university’s athletic website. This price is extraordinarily large in comparison to BYU’s basketball season ticket options, assuming Rams Club members would pay more for their season tickets than the $670 per seat available to everyone else.
BYU’s ticket prices are oftentimes hundreds of dollars cheaper than the big schools in the NCAA, even though they seem to be on the rise, according to Beckham.
Cougar Club donations and fan support are essential to keeping BYU competitive in the NCAA, according to Tittle, and Middleton wants donors to see the impact donors make on the lives of individual students.
“BYU’s 631 student-athletes can do what they do because of our donors,” Middleton said. “I hope that our donors see beyond the dollar signs to the lives they’re changing.”