College athletes and coaches have long been prohibited from betting on sports, so it’s ironic that legalized sports betting in North Carolina will financially benefit UNC Asheville and Western Carolina University.
The new law allowing people to make wagers on college and professional sports also creates challenges for college administrators and student-athletes.
Under the new law, as many as 12 sports betting apps and eight brick-and-mortar sportsbooks could be operating in the state within the year. UNCA and WCU are among 13 of 15 state universities that each will get up to $300,000 annually from the taxes generated by legal sports betting.
The additional money will be welcome at the schools, which don’t receive any other state funding for athletics and can’t count on lucrative TV contracts the way bigger programs like UNC Chapel Hill and N.C. State do. In fact, the campuses both rank near the bottom of Division 1 schools nationally in terms of athletic revenue, according to USA Today.
“I think this is a critical component of the bill,” says state Rep. Jake Johnson, a Polk County Republican who co-sponsored the legislation. “If [betting on] college athletics is included in the legislation, we want to make sure we are reinvesting in those institutions. Unlike a lot of the one-time capital money these universities receive, I hope to see this being a continued revenue source.”
But don’t count on the money being used to add teams or build new facilities in Asheville or Cullowhee.
“It’s just helping us pay some bills that we already pay,” says Alex Gary, WCU’s director of athletics. “It’ll help us fund unfunded mandates, which I know is not sexy. It’s helpful, but it’s not like I can do something new with the money.”
For instance, he explains, mandated raises for state employees mean the school’s athletic department will pay about $700,000 more in staff salaries in 2025 than it did in 2022. And the NCAA continues to make changes that add further expenses, including new full-time coaching positions and requiring schools to offer degree completion funds for up to 10 years after an athlete’s eligibility ends.
“We don’t necessarily have money for that,” he says.
UNCA is likely to use the money for scholarship support or mental health and medical services for athletes, says Richard Keroack, assistant athletic director for finance and business operations. “We have our current mental health services program and our current sports medicine staff, but an injection of that new revenue would allow us to go a little further with those services.”
Another possibility is using some of the money to support the school’s Be a Top Dog program, which provides personal, professional and athletic guidance for athletes, he says.
Athletic departments generate money through ticket sales, concessions, student fees, media rights, fundraising, game revenue guarantees and an annual NCAA distribution. WCU’s athletic revenue was about $16.3 million in fiscal year 2022. That ranks 178th out of 232 Division 1 public schools ranked by campus by USA Today.
UNCA’s athletics revenue was about $8.7 million in the same period, placing it 225th on the list.
Under NCAA rules, athletes, coaches and other athletic department employees are prohibited from betting on any sport sponsored by the NCAA at any level, college or professional. That means, for example, college athletes can’t gamble on NFL or NBA games. That’s true even in states where gambling is legal.
That’s a big reason educating athletes and staff about the sports-betting prohibition has long been part of compliance training at UNCA and WCU. Warning about gambling on the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has been a particular emphasis.
But now that it will be legal to wager on sports in North Carolina, administrators plan to redouble their efforts. “We’re going to probably have to take a heavier stance and maybe have more frequent education about that topic [rules about betting on sports],” Keroack says.
He points to the example of Brad Bohannon, who was fired as the baseball coach at the University of Alabama in May amid an investigation into suspicious bets placed on an Alabama-LSU game. Also in May, officials at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University said that more than 40 athletes across multiple teams at the schools were suspected of wagering on sports.
“It doesn’t help the [college sports] industry, but it’s good to have real-life examples [of people] getting caught up in some of this,” Keroack says. “That’s going to resonate with our students and coaches and show them what the consequences could be for doing stuff you’re not supposed to do.”
The athletic department’s life skills coordinator is planning to emphasize gambling prohibitions starting next year, he says.
Sports betting in the state is already legal at three tribal casinos, including Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee. That’s not far from WCU’s Cullowhee campus.
“We’re 25-30 minutes from Cherokee, so if somebody wants to place a bet on one of our contests right now, they can,” Gary points out. “But when it comes to being able to place a bet at your fingertips, obviously that allows for more people that can’t go to Cherokee or go somewhere else to place a bet. So, I think that doubling down on our efforts and making sure our student-athletes are aware in even more ways will be important.”