Big Bucks, Big Recruits: Pac-12

Pac-12 schools shell out millions to woo athletes

(InvestigateTV/Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism) — Washington State University wants recruits to have a good time, defensive player Ron Stone Jr. said.

On his official visit in November 2017, private cars greeted him and his family at the regional airport in Pullman, Washington. The coaches treated him to prime rib and crab legs at dinner.

“When it comes to recruiting, there’s not really an expense that won’t be paid for the kids to enjoy their experience,” Stone said.

Getting players to buy into a program, means Pac-12 schools must pay out. Ten of the 12 universities in the conference have spent $133.9 million since 2011 to attract players, according to the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism’s and InvestigateTV’s analysis of the Knight-Newhouse College Athletics database at Syracuse University. Stanford University and the University of Southern California are private universities and not required to release their financial data.

What the Pac-12 has spent to lure athletes is a fraction of the $706.3 million spent by Division I Football Subdivision Schools spent on recruiting since 2011.

WSU was not a clear frontrunner, but the official visit convinced Stone he wanted to play for the Cougars.

“I met all the different players, went to a football party,” Stone said. “One of the reasons I committed was the team chemistry and how there were no real cliques.”

Like many college athletes recruited pre-2023, Stone, now in his sixth year, is experiencing a side of recruiting that didn’t exist when he was in high school. The transfer portal, unlimited official visits, and name, image and likeness, commonly called NIL, deals mean the recruiting process is about more than a team’s chemistry or defense scheme, he said.

“At the end of the day, no matter how many rules you put in, no matter what you do, the institution will do almost anything they can, literally by any means necessary, to try to get that recruit,” said B. David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and an expert on the NCAA.

Ridpath said that men’s football and basketball spending has ballooned in recent years, and there is no limit to what top programs are willing to spend on a recruit.

InvestigateTV made public records requests to all the public universities seeking detailed expenditures for recruiting.

Arizona, Arizona State, California, UCLA, Oregon State, Washington, Washington State provided detailed spending records; Colorado, Oregon and Utah provided summary figures; and Stanford and USC are exempt from public records laws.

Pac-12 schools’ recruiting expenses ranged from pricey meals to chartered travel, according to records obtained InvestigateTV:

  • During one day of an official visit weekend in July 2021, Cal football spent just under $145,000, including just under $61,000 on chauffeur services, about $10,500 on catering, $7,200 at McCormick & Kuleto’s Seafood & Steak, $2,600 at a Brazilian steakhouse called Galpão Gaucho, and $1,700 at a French restaurant called Grégoire.
  • Cal men’s basketball bought a $3,988.25 Italian dinner at Agro Dulce on May 31, 2022, according to public records. While men’s basketball frequented dinners that racked up bills in the thousands, women’s basketball ate recruiting meals at Jamba Juice, an inexpensive Mexican restaurant called Cactus Taqueria, and a bubble tea shop, according to public records.
  • The University of Washington paid $23,382.32 for a football recruiting event in December 2021, and spent another $30,406.73 on a recruiting weekend in January 2022.
  • The University of Colorado’s football program spent $220,167.54 on out-of-state travel for employees from July 2021 to June 2022.
  • The University of Washington had three separate meal expenses on June 30 – $6,708.72 labeled meal, $4,369.08 labeled dinner, $9,442.53 labeled lunch.
  • The University of Oregon’s football program spent $551,089.03 on “housing groups and guests” and $442,288.78 on domestic air travel.
  • Arizona State spent $48,645.00 from July 2021 to June 2022 on Hudl, a sports analysis program.

Steve Salaga, associate professor in sports management at the University of Georgia, who researches sport economics, calls attention to the power NIL gives schools with enough funds to sway a young adult.

“NIL, as time has moved on, it’s become more and more important,” Salaga said. The programs that have more NIL money, from what I’ve seen anecdotally, they’re the ones that are more successful in pulling an existing player off another team’s roster.”

But promising a dollar amount only goes so far.

“I hear stories where kids will commit places because they’re offered X amount of money, and they’ll only receive a third of it,” Stone said. “They just left their school because they thought it was going to work out for them, and now they end up getting a little bit of money but a lot less play and worse of a future.”

Maddie Nolan, a fifth-year guard at Colorado University transferred from the University of Michigan because of her extra year of eligibility during to COVID-19 rules.

While receiving an offer from the University of Louisville, she ultimately decided on Colorado, striving for a new academic and athletic experience outside the Midwest.

Nolan said the official visits during her time in the transfer portal were more typical of the conventional recruitment process.

“I got to go on the steakhouse dinners this time because it was a more traditional thing,” Nolan said. “You can almost eat whatever you want … you just feel really special.”

Nolan said the universities covered team excursions to Top Golf and Escape Rooms and dining at expensive restaurants — Nolan remembers lots of steak and seafood.

“They’re putting their best foot forward and trying to impress you,” Nolan said.

Heather Graf, Jill Riepenhoff and Conner Hendricks, of InvestigateTV, and Haley Miller, of the Arnolt Center, contributed to this story.

This story was written by journalists at the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism at Indiana University in partnership with InvestigateTV.