Caple: Thoughts on Ana Mari Cauce, Big Ten and UW’s athletic budget

Jun 15, 2024, 7:45 PM | Updated: Jun 16, 2024, 9:15 pm

UW Huskies...

A general view at Husky Stadium during a 2023 game. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

SEATTLE — Though it was hardly a secret, Ana Mari Cauce made it official Wednesday that she will step down from her role as University of Washington president next year, with plans to return to her faculty position.

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On Thursday, Cauce sat in her place at the June meeting of the school’s Board of Regents, part of which included a presentation on the athletic department’s budget and all the new costs associated with UW’s impending move to the Big Ten.

These two events crystallized two things:

Cauce’s decision to steer UW away from the Pac-12 created some headaches in the short term (at least).

Someone else will make decisions that impact how Cauce is ultimately remembered for it.

The latter is true because joining the Big Ten is a legacy-defining move, regardless of outcome, but also because it can now be said that Cauce’s replacement — in conjunction with future iterations of the Board of Regents — will at least partially determine the degree to which UW might be allowed to excel within its new conference.

Consider the budgetary gymnastics, approved by the board, to make the numbers work in 2025: a pair of interest-free loans — cash advances, essentially, against future earnings — from both the Big Ten and FOX, yes, but also some money from invested and central campus funds, in addition to institutional support from non-state and non-tuition sources. (That’s the high-level summary, anyway; read here for more details.) Added together, these measures will help cover a projected $30 million cash-flow deficit over the next year while also helping to fund the athletic department’s operating budget.

After that, who knows?

Annual debt-service payments on the loans that funded the renovation of Husky Stadium aren’t going away; in fact, that annual payment is set to increase by about $8 million in the 2026 fiscal year. The athletic department drained its cash reserves covering cash-flow deficits the past two fiscal years. The House v. NCAA settlement, assuming it is approved by a judge, will introduce another estimated $30 million in AD expenses. Ticket sales are up, and UW will see a big bump in College Football Playoff revenue in the Big Ten. But UW receiving only a half-share of media-rights money presents an impediment — a full share won’t come until 2030-31 — and there’s no telling how the House settlement might rearrange the books next summer and fall.

UW has long prided itself on running a self-sufficient athletic department, operating almost entirely without campus or state funding (gender-equity tuition waivers aside). That is gradually changing. The department reported more than $10 million in direct institutional support in FY23, and its projected FY25 budget puts total institutional support at more than $27 million, counting tuition waivers.

Considering what’s on the horizon — namely the House settlement — it’s hard to envision the department operating without continued campus support in FY26 and beyond. Cauce still has a year left as president, with her term expiring in June 2025. It remains to be seen whether the athletic department might be allowed to restructure the stadium debt — again — before Cauce’s term is up. At least in FY2025, the department will cover its debt service (about $9.8 million) with a loan from the school’s capital assets pool. But that’s a short-term solution for a problem that will remain long after Cauce — and likely multiple successors — have left the school.

UW is a large research institution with many stakeholders and a renowned medical school. Athletics represents about 1.7 percent of the university’s total revenue. It’s also the most visible department, and football is its most visible program. Cauce’s replacement needs to not only understand the value of football to the university’s broader mission — something Cauce herself articulated during a September interview — but also that moving to the Big Ten and navigating a post-House future may well require unprecedented financial support from upper campus.

It was — and is — in Cauce’s (and the regents’) best interests to provide the athletic department broad flexibility to balance the budget as it heads to the Big Ten, and the approved FY25 budget includes greater institutional support than any before it. There was no point, after all, in leaving the Pac-12 if the school isn’t willing to do what it takes to compete in the Big Ten.

Though it will be Cauce who is ultimately judged vis-a-vis UW’s Big Ten decision, she’s only going to be in charge for a single football season. Someone else will decide how fervently UW wants to attack its sporting future, and how committed the university, as a whole, will be to ensuring it is a successful one.

In so doing, they’ll be shaping Cauce’s athletics legacy, some portion of which now hinges on Washington proving it belongs in legion with college football’s top programs.

If you read my story breaking down the budget, there weren’t many unknown details discussed at the regents meeting, though there are a few notes worth passing along.

– Erin O’Connell, the department’s chief operating officer who served as interim AD during both of UW’s searches the past year, emphasized the cost of moving to the Big Ten: “We can’t just flip a switch, right? There’s a lot that’s going into this — exciting, but a big lift as we go.”

– Athletic director Pat Chun emphasized: “Where we’re headed is the right place. There is a bright future for us in the Big Ten.”

– O’Connell addressed the increase in ticket sales and revenue, adding that Big Ten fan bases are known for traveling well, too. “We don’t have a whole lot of tickets left,” she said. “So we do anticipate that we’re going to be a full house, and that’s exciting.”

– UW officials have long wanted to host concerts at Husky Stadium, but were required to develop a transportation master plan (like on a football Saturday) in order to make it happen. They got that done a couple years ago, O’Connell said, and even engaged in discussions with Pearl Jam about doing a show, though it didn’t materialize. O’Connell said UW still has the ability to book Husky Stadium for concerts or other events on four additional dates, but simply haven’t had the bandwidth recently to pursue something like that. She said any concert would likely have to happen in July (not this year, but generally), considering other events like graduation and the start of football practices.

– The $10 million loan from the Big Ten will be repaid from UW’s FY31 distributions, O’Connell said, with the $10 million Fox loan repaid from distributions in FY33. Both are interest free.

– Sounds like the Big Ten Network has already visited campus for an episode of its “Campus Eats” series,” featuring trips to Ivar’s and Dick’s Drive-In.

This article was originally published at, the home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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Caple: Thoughts on Ana Mari Cauce, Big Ten and UW’s athletic budget