We’re convinced University of Northern Iowa athletics are important.

Their impact on the Cedar Valley is irrefutable. UNI athletics put Cedar Falls on the map. They bring in visitors. They generate business and give us a source of pride.

But UNI is a state institution. Its mission is not to prop up the Cedar Valley, but to educate Iowans. We believe UNI fulfills that mission better with competitive athletic teams. When UNI basketball makes it the Sweet 16 or the football team makes it to the championship game, it attracts eyes across the nation to our state. It’s a chance to show off Iowa’s opportunities and Iowa’s values. UNI athletics are important to the state.

Finally, UNI athletics mean something to students, including students who can’t put a shot or punt a football. Even students who despise sports benefit from UNI’s participation when they apply for a job out of state and the employer recognizes UNI on the resume and perhaps even pictures the Panther logo or has fond memories of a guy by the name of Ali Farokhmanesh.

Last week The Courier ran a six-part series examining UNI athletics and the financial difficulties they face. It also explored possible solutions to provide a stable base going forward.

As UNI attempts to eliminate the $4.1 million in taxpayer athletics support in coming years, all options need to be explored. We commend the efforts of the UNI staff to tap into the generosity of the community to support the Panther Scholarship Fund and other efforts to bolster private financing for athletics. However, there’s a limit to how much private donors and full venues can benefit the school.

The Iowa Board of Regents has recognized that UNI faces unique challenges when it comes to balancing its budget as opposed to Iowa and Iowa State. The board needs to examine whether UNI’s unique circumstance, serving a mostly in-state population and the lower tuition collections that come with it, could lead it to grant UNI a unique tool as well. Currently out-of-state athletes come in at out-of-state tuition rates. We think UNI should be allowed a waiver to bill those athletes at in-state prices. Such a move would stretch scholarship dollars and reduce the financial pressure on athletic budgets.

Secondly, Athletic Director Troy Dannen suggested UNI could explore a move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision. How such a move would affect UNI’s finances is uncertain. There would be potential for greater revenue from the football program, but also greater expenses from the additional scholarships that would be required. The college football landscape is rapidly changing and such a move should be immediately studied, as the opportunity for change may never be greater than in the next few years.

While a football change and out-of-state tuition waivers could be pieces in the puzzle, UNI students will almost certainly be a cornerstone of UNI’s efforts to solidify UNI athletics’ future financial picture.

When it comes to the Missouri Valley Conference, UNI ranks second to last in the percentage of its athletics budget derived from student fees. Illinois State gets half of its athletics budget from student fees, while UNI students pay 7.3 percent.

If UNI is to remain competitive among its peers on the athletic fields, its students will have to pitch in at a level that rivals them as well.

UNI students will be part of the conversation. They need to determine the value of UNI athletics.

The university would exist without athletics. But would a degree from UNI be worth as much? Would alumni feel a connection to the school? Would former students return to campus?

UNI athletics have given much to all of us over the years. It’s time to recognize that value.

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