A planned lazy river intended for use by UCF student-athletes and deep-pocketed fans is the product of a “wrong-headed” race by universities to build extravagant facilities to gain prestige and woo recruits, critics say.
That type of spending in the sports program is not likely to strengthen academics at the University of Central Florida nor improve the average student’s experience, according to the leader of a national organization that advocates for colleges to raise academic standards and keep down costs.
Though a private donor is paying $1 million for the construction of the river attraction, university leaders could steer those dollars toward other projects, said Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit organization that tracks spending at colleges.
“One should never treat a donor’s generosity with anything except gratitude, but having said that, schools need to use some reasonable discretion both of what they accept and what they’re soliciting,” Poliakoff said. “Schools do have the ability to shape a philanthropic vision.”
UCF officials say donors decide where to contribute their money.
“When foundation staff meet with donors, including those passionate about athletics, they discuss UCF’s academic priorities,” UCF spokesman Chad Binette wrote in an email. “Donors ultimately decide which areas to support, and we are fortunate that many donors invest in both athletics and academics.”
Some recent examples include Joyce and Vince Virga, who pledged $10.25 million to support College of Business and athletics programs; and Jim and Julia Rosengren, whose $6.6 million gift supports the football program, UCF RESTORES clinic, marine turtle research, a faculty position in the College of Sciences and the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Binette said.
Athletic director Danny White first floated the notion of a lazy river similar to those found in resorts and water parks, in 2017, when he pitched a plan for $30 million in upgrades that would enhance the school’s athletics facilities. Late last year, the school said alumni Tom and Stacey McNamara had agreed to give $1 million for the so-called “Recovery Cove,” which featured a lazy river as its centerpiece.
Trustees agreed last month to name the addition “McNamara Cove,” with White describing it in a press release as a “recovery and leisure space” for student-athletes.
But Gerald Gurney, former president of the Drake Group, which is critical of spending in college athletics, suspects university leaders have other motivations.
“The first thing I would say is, let’s not kid ourselves — the building of this facility has nothing to do whatsoever with the current athletes and everything to do with the recruitment of future athletes,” he said.
And the Knights have been at the top of their game recently, securing commitments from several elite football prospects over the summer. The team, which is ranked No. 18 in the country by the Associated Press, saw a 25-game regular-season winning streak end last month. Also, the men’s basketball team scored its first-ever victory in the NCAA tournament in March.
UCF said the lazy river, which is due to open outside of Spectrum Stadium in time for the 2020 football season, will be about 500 feet long, with two attached pools of roughly 1,600 and 1,000 square feet.
Along with student-athletes, well-heeled individuals and corporations will be able to dip their toes in, too.
The university plans to sell as many as 250 annual “Covegating” memberships, advertised at $2,500 per person. That fee covers access to the lazy river for three to four hours before each regular-season home game, food, drink, inner tubes and parking.
For the McNamaras, giving money to build a lazy river is a way to make a splash at the Kenneth G. Dixon Athletics Village, which also includes the Garvy Center for Student-Athlete Nutrition, the Roth Athletics Center and the Basketball Excellence Center.
Tom McNamara told the Orlando Sentinel recently he and his wife have donated to the athletics department for about 10 years. They’ve attended every home football game for 30 years and traveled to many away games. A UCF student from 1983 to 1988, McNamara wasn’t a varsity athlete, but he played club sports and was active in his fraternity.
He said he envisions the cove as a gathering place for athletics teams, close to where they practice and many live. The school’s existing leisure pool, he pointed out, is about a mile away on the other end of campus.
Poliakoff, who wrestled at Yale University during the early 1970s, said athletics can provide great learning opportunities for students, but the extracurricular areas of a college should never supplant the core academic mission. He characterized UCF’s lazy river as an extravagance.
“There has been a real arms race on facilities and luxuries,” he said. “It’s very, very ill-advised and wrong-headed.”
Gurney agreed, describing the project as “nothing short of just total and unadulterated waste.”
“It’s poor stewardship,” said Gurney, an assistant professor in the adult and higher education department at the University of Oklahoma. “The college president first and foremost should be devoted to advancing their institution through scholarship and developing the best possible teaching environment for the citizens of the state of Florida. This is absolute nonsense that has nothing whatsoever to do with education.”
But Ellen J. Staurowsky, professor of sport management at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said although these showy additions are attention-grabbing, athletic spending usually accounts for a fraction of a university’s overall budget. At UCF, it’s just less than 3% of the university’s $1.7 billion operating budget. Most Division I schools hover in that range, Staurowsky said.
“For the value, there are people that will argue that it really isn’t a disproportionate investment,” she said.
Though McNamara’s company, Southern Development and Construction, has been a subcontractor on several UCF projects, including the $6 million Wayne Densch Center for Student Athlete Leadership that opened in 2016, he said his previous work for the university didn’t influence his decision to donate. His company doesn’t install pools, but likely will handle other parts of the project, such as running sewer lines.
University leaders say students won’t be stuck footing the bill for an amenity most will never use and that money from the general athletics fund will not be used to operate or maintain McNamara Cove, which they estimate will cost about $200,000 a year.
The fees the students pay on top of tuition for other sports-related needs are the largest source of revenue for the department at UCF, according to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. In 2017, students provided $22.6 million for sports — 40% of the department’s revenue. UCF students pay $14.32 per credit hour for athletics, which adds up to $214.80 each semester for a full-time student. Florida’s other public universities also charge fees for athletics, ranging from $.69 to $20.93 per credit hour.
For the McNamaras, the school’s plan to use the cove as a way to bring in additional money for sports was a particularly compelling reason to foot the bill for construction.
“I looked at it as not just a one-time donation, but a donation that will keep giving for years to come,” Tom McNamara said.
UCF Board of Trustees Chairwoman Beverly Seay echoed that argument.
“Donors invest in what they are passionate about,” Seay wrote in an email to the Orlando Sentinel. “As a donor at UCF and other institutions, I have invested in academics and athletics because both support students and advance the university’s excellence and reputation. The McNamara family’s generous gift will generate revenue for UCF’s athletics program. Other robust philanthropic efforts are focused on academics and student scholarships.”
Donors also have chipped in to build other facilities, including the new downtown Orlando campus, which opened in August. The university brought in more than $20 million in private funding for that project.
McNamara said he believes a successful athletics program can be a vehicle for raising the academic profile of the school. UCF leaders have made similar comments, including former president John Hitt, who likened sports programs to the “front porch” of the university.
Gurney said he thinks that mindset is misguided but not uncommon among university leaders since Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie threw a game-winning Hail Mary pass in a famous 1984 game against the University of Miami, which is credited with sparking a sharp increase in applications to Boston College.
“The college presidents have really taken to what I call chasing the ‘Flutie effect’ — trying to pour money into athletics with the belief that that will somehow bring fame and glory to the institution at large and that simply is short-sighted and a really wasteful approach to advancing the goals of any university, including UCF,” he said.
He pointed to studies that suggest this phenomenon is a myth and suggested donors who want to support varsity sports could be directed toward other needs like long-term health care or scholarships for athletes.
“It seems these donors are being told this is what the athletic department needs and it seems they are being steered in the wrong direction,” Gurney said.
UCF isn’t the first campus to build this type of feature or try to lure top athletes with flashy amenities.
In 2011, students at Louisiana State University voted to increase fees to pay for a lazy river in the shape of the school’s initials and other enhancements at an $85 million recreation center. The school also recently completed a $28 million renovation of its football locker room, which now houses individual sleep pods for every player.
When universities see rival athletic programs adding new features they often feel the need to keep pace, said Staurowsky, the professor at Drexel University. A decade ago, schools rushed to revamp their football stadiums and basketball arenas. Now, campuses are hustling to build climate-controlled practice areas.
“I think the athletic environment is hypersensitive to what are being perceived as recruiting advantages,” she said.
Poliakoff said he’s “dubious” that UCF students won’t pay a price for their school’s pampering of its athletes.
“When you break down the expenditure on an athlete as opposed to an expenditure on the general student population, the gap is enormous and there are far better ways to build academic strength than through the athletic program,” he said.