COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina's athletic department is committing $15 million over 15 years to the school's academic programs, thanks in part to the Southeastern Conference's lucrative media deals.
South Carolina's share from the SEC for the 2008-09 budget year was more than $10.6 million. Athletic director Eric Hyman said with new deals with CBS and ESPN forged earlier this year, the Gamecocks' share figured to grow to more than $16 million in the next budget - making it an easy decision to help university academics.
"The students help athletics tremendously and this is our way to give back and our way to be supportive," Hyman said Monday.
The 15-year deal with ESPN was reportedly worth more than $2 billion. The conference also signed a 15-year deal with CBS, but the value of the deal was not disclosed.
The money will be earmarked for need-based programs like the "Gamecock Guarantee," which helps students of families with incomes of $25,000 or less afford college.
"What kind of a guarantee is it if you can't come up with the money?" USC president Harris Pastides said.
Funds will also be used for the nearly 3,000 graduate students with university assistantships to deal with rising health-insurance premiums; and for students who face severe family circumstances such the head of a household losing their job.
Pastides said in today's tight economic times, more and more students tell financial aid officers they're unsure if they can return next semester because of rising costs.
The university is already facing reductions in state funding that threaten to squeeze resources. Pastides had previously announced it would eliminate about a quarter of its part-time faculty contracts as it deals with $39 million in budget cuts. That's what makes the athletic-academic partnership so crucial, he said.
"Without this, we would have less money for students," said Pastides, picked as university president last July. "I can't underscore this enough."
South Carolina came to its agreement so quickly because "frankly, our state is in a deeper economic crisis right now than other states," Pastides said.
Athletics has long contributed to South Carolina's academics. Fees on Clemson and Georgia football tickets are earmarked for scholarship programs. The department has annually contributed $250,000 for the university's scholarships.
Pastides says South Carolina may be the first SEC school to announce the expanded arrangement, but probably won't be the last.
"I think there are conversations going on in all of our 12 universities. We're certainly first to draw attention in that way," Pastides said. "I can only imagine as the economic crisis deepens, you'll be hearing more."
Hyman or Pastides wouldn't speculate whether the athletic department might contribute more should there be deeper cuts.
Pastides made clear any agreement would not have been reached had it compromised plans to improve Gamecock athletics. Hyman is in the early stages of a $200 million plan to overhaul the school's athletic facilities. The Gamecocks' new, $35.6 million baseball stadium is scheduled to open in February. The athletic department has also broken ground on a $13 million academic enrichment center.
"I wanted to be sure that it's an amount that would not get in the way of Eric building athletics," Pastides said.
South Carolina's longtime men's soccer coach, Mark Berson, said all athletic personnel can take pride in helping students.
"Those are the people that our guys play for," he said. "Everyone is very much tied together in the university community."