Funding has dried up for a lot of things in the Great Recession, including college sports programs. At Cal State San Marcos,
the most recent addition to the UC system, students recently voted on a measure to increase their fees from $80 to $200 per year to support their fledgling intercollegiate athletics program. CSUSM is an interesting case. This is a campus in which the prospects are remote for a major college football team, or even a basketball squad seeded 64th in the NCAA tourney. The revenues generated by the fee increase would apparently add $1.2 million to a current budget of $1.7 million. This looks like a significant step up in funding for a very small program of intercollegiate athletics. I assume that the students who voted had a decent sense that what they were voting for was to better fund a small-time program, rather than an entry into the major college sports landscape. Turnout was not large: about 1300 out of 9200 students voted, with 866 supporting the proposal. The immediate consequence would appear to be the formation of men's and women's basketball teams.
Roger Noll once made the observation that sports on campus must be demand driven, ultimately, and not just the result of a conspiracy among boosters, coaches, and board members. After all, boosters and million-dollar coaches are nowhere to be found at small private colleges, which operate in an unsubsidized, competitive market. Yet small colleges compete for students, in part, by spending a significant (5%) chunk of revenue on small-time intercollegiate sports. If reallocating this expenditure yielded a better crop of applicants, you'd expect to see that choice made.
Student votes are taking place at a number of institutions in the current environment, and not all of the sports-funding initiatives are winning. Students at Long Beach State, for example, rejected a $190 per year increase in fees that would have covered "rising costs, cuts, and a new soccer-track stadium." My sense is that Long Beach is a commuter school, and soccer and track don't exactly "galvanize the community." That package seems a tough sell.
Here's the story on CSUSM, with a brief discussion of other fee-based sports funding proposals around the country.
(Note: The original post confused CSU San Marcos with UC Merced, which I attribute to my pre-6am reading and posting on the story. Thanks to CM Gayley for the correction.