Opinion: Utah athletic programs help our economy, our enrollment and our well-being

Athletics programs bring us together and create a sense of pride in our institutions.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah fans in the MUSS cheer on the PAC-12 football game between the University of Utah and Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Rose, Cotton, Orange, Peach, Famous Idaho Potato — it’s college football bowl season, a time we eagerly anticipate with hopes of finishing with a winning record and securing a spot in one of the nation’s 43 bowl games.

Being part of a competitive athletics fanbase is an unparalleled experience. Cheering your team on as they compete in front of a national audience is an exciting and memorable experience for fans of Utah’s flagship and land grant institutions: the University of Utah and Utah State University, respectively.

This bowl season, the Utes are headed to Las Vegas for the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl against Northwestern, while the Aggies are traveling north to Boise to play Georgia State on the blue turf for the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Both institutions, classified as R1, are known for high levels of research impacting local, statewide, national and even international communities. Together, USU and the U. account for 95% of Utah’s National Science Foundation funding. This research and the education of our combined 63,373 students are our most important contributions to the Beehive State. But let’s not forget the impact of our Division I (D1) athletics programs.

Raising awareness and recruitment

Becoming an R1 institution enhances awareness and attracts top-tier faculty and students, a phenomenon mirrored in D1 sports. When a team does well — like the U.’s back-to-back Pac-12 football championship and Rose Bowl appearances and the Aggies becoming the Mountain West Champions and winner of the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl in 2021 — there’s a jump in overall student applications. This “Flutie Effect,” named for Boston College’s star quarterback in the ‘80s, means we have more students from different backgrounds coming to our beautiful state.

Building leadership skills and character

Teamwork. Discipline. Resilience. These are all characteristics our student-athletes display in their sports and in the classroom. USU student-athletes broke records in 2022–23 with the highest cumulative GPAs in the school’s history and a 90% graduation rate. The U.’s 2023 Athletics graduation success rate is 94% tying it with the fourth-highest rate among power five public institutions and second among our Pac-12 peers, behind only Stanford. Both universities are Carnegie Foundation-classified for high levels of community engagement, and our student-athletes play a huge role in this classification. For example, two student-athletes at the U. were recently honored with Utah Athletes in Service awards for their efforts and commitment to building stronger communities.

Creating a sense of belonging

Both institutions foster tight-knit communities, particularly through successful D1 programs. Student sections The HURD at USU and The MUSS at the U., acclaimed by ESPN and others, contribute to a vibrant sense of belonging and community, benefiting mental health and well-being.

Strengthening alumni engagement

Alumni connections formed through sports persist after graduation, influencing charitable giving. The U. boasts 26 chapters and communities of 626,317 alumni and friends within the Pac-12 states. USU has 19 chapters with 383,381 alumni and friends in the Mountain West alone. Stronger alumni bonds translate to more scholarships and support for students.

Boosting Utah’s economy

In the financial realm, universities and hospitals are the bedrock of state economies, generating more than $1 trillion in income and similar value for local economies nationwide. But D1 athletics, notably football, amassed $15.8 billion in revenues nationwide in 2019. In Utah, the U. and USU football programs generate revenues from media rights, ticket sales, royalties, licensing, advertisements, sponsorships and donations, which contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to Utah’s economy.

Elevating our great state

Regardless of whether you’ve taken a class at either institution — and we encourage you to — chances are you’ve caught a game at one of our campuses. Athletics programs bring us together and create a sense of pride in our institutions. As we continue to celebrate our academic and research achievements, let’s also recognize and embrace the tremendous contributions of our athletics programs to the vitality and spirit of our universities and our state.

Go Aggies! Go Utes!

Elizabeth R. Cantwell

Elizabeth (Betsy) R. Cantwell became Utah State University’s 17th president in August 2023. Before joining USU, she served as the senior vice president for research and innovation at the University of Arizona, where she was responsible for an $825 million annual research portfolio and a research and innovation enterprise that spanned 20 academic colleges with locations across Arizona.

Taylor R. Randall

Taylor R. Randall was selected by the Utah Board of Higher Education as the 17th president of the University of Utah in August 2021. An award-winning educator, innovative leader, and champion of higher education, he comes to the position with more than two decades of experience at the U, serving as both dean of and an accounting professor in the David Eccles School of Business. He is the first alumnus since 1973 to serve as president.

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