Sunday, May 4, 2008

Idiocy of Funding College Football

I love football. I really love football; I’m an idiot for the game. I’ve wasted countless Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays, a few Wednesdays, and some Thursdays watching football. I love NCAA football, and I love the NFL (no so much Arena football). I’ve been known to listen to high school football on the radio. When I was a kid, my dad was watching a football game, and I asked him whom we wanted to win the game. He said, nobody. Being a clever tike, I switched gears and asked whom we wanted to lose. He said, nobody. I couldn’t understand this. A few years ago, I had essentially the same conversation with one of my kids. In a flash of enlightenment (satori, if you will), I realized I had achieved what my father had several years earlier – the Zen of football. I appreciated the game just for the game.

I need to say all of this first, because I think it’s a total crock how much universities put on the shoulders of their students to support their football programs. Everybody “knows” that football at NCAA Division I-A (or Football Bowl Subdivision -- FBS) pays for all the non-revenue sports (read, women’s sports). This justifies all the money spent on facilities, scholarships, and coaches’ salaries for the football programs. The problem is that few, if any football programs actually make any money. According to John V. Lombardi (what a great football name) “The Enemy is Us: Cost Reduction College Sports,” Inside Higher Ed (31 January 2005) “Maybe five in the country make money (if you could get them to report their income and expenses honestly and fully). The other 112 or so lose money; some lose a great deal of money.” That’s for the major programs. The lower division schools, Divisions II and III and NAIA, spend a greater percentage of their universities’ budgets on their football programs, thereby losing a greater percentage of their budgets.

A favorite argument of those who argue that big-time NCAA football turns a profit is that teams that participate in Bowl games, especially the BCS games, surely turn a profit with the big payouts. A brilliant example of this fallacy is the University of Wisconsin, which, as winner of the 1998 Rose Bowl, received a payout of $1.1 million. Despite this, they lost $286,700 on the trip. This was largely the result of paying for “832 people to attend, including players, band members, boosters, and university administrators.” (Welch Suggs, “A Look at the Future Bottom Line of Big-Time Sports,” Chronicle of Higher Education (12 Nov. 1999)).

Athletic directors tend to claim that increased attendance coupled with increased ticket prices makes up for the financial losses. (Welch Suggs, “A Look at the Future Bottom Line of Big-Time Sports,” Chronicle of Higher Education (12 Nov. 1999)). However, in an editorial in the Charlotte Observer on 21 Feb. 2008, Mary C. Schulken, associate editor at the newspaper wrote in “When these two men talk, we ought to listen: 49er football: A choice about whether football or academics will lead,” points out the major source of revenue to make up the shortfall is actually “much higher mandatory student athletic fees.” She goes on to argue that, if UNC-Charlotte decides to institute FBS football, they need to keep in mind that, “A 2003 NCAA study determined that for every dollar spent on college football, only one is generated in additional revenues. And remember, millions of dollars of that so-called revenue comes from student fees.”
Unfortunately, a major reason for the cost of college football is the bloated bureaucracy in FBS programs and the incompetence of many of those administrators. According to Brian L. Porto, in A New Season: Using Title IX to Reform College Sports (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), the salaries of the coaches and the athletic directors “do not reflect market forces.” He argues that athletic departments are “autonomous” and tend to be run as an “`old boy’ network that runs these departments to reward its members.” Porto continues, “The lack of market pressure on athletic directors also accounts for their tendency to list as assets on their financial statements hoped-for revenues from unpredictable sources such as gate receipts, postseason bowl game or tournament appearances, licensing income, and private gifts, which often fail to meet expectations.” According to Tim Sullivan, “SDSU profs say football `profit’ doesn’t add up’ Union Tribune (San Diego) (9 Nov. 2007), “`There's no other business in America that does its books like athletic departments,’ said Indiana University's Murray Sperber, author of “College Sports, Inc.” `I can't think of one (other business) that has the deep, deep subsidies.’” Sullivan continues his discussion of financial irregularities by noting, “Athletic departments customarily pay little or nothing for such items as office space, utilities and debt service incurred on new facilities. Their costs, therefore, tend to be significantly understated. Their pronouncements of profitability, in turn, tend to be met with cynicism. Thus, athletic directors are not the hard-nosed corporate executives that they think they are, because unlike corporate executives, athletic directors are not necessarily held accountable for failing to control costs. According to [economist] Andrew Zimbalist: `If there were true economic competition [in college sports], athletic directors would have to make wise decisions and spend money wisely or they would go out of business. But these programs don’t go out of business.”

This attitude that that athletic departments can’t “go out of business” is a particular problem for schools below the FBS level, like Division II, Division III, and NAIA football programs. According to Tom Brennan, retired English professor at the University of South Alabama in, “Observation: The Gaping Maw of the Bottomless Pitt: The High Cost of Football” Harbinger (16 Nov. 1999) “athletic directors say they operate in a unique environment and that their costs must be met regardless of needs in other segments of the university. In other words, the costs of athletics departments are sacrosanct, which means, in effect, that athletics directors and their programs occupy a protected sanctuary within the university and that these sanctuaries stand apart from the standard university governance.” This attitude can be devastating at a small state school in a state that decides to prorate its yearly education budget. I remember the university I work at deciding one year not to buy books for the library. We still fielded a full football team. You have to have priorities and, apparently, football comes before the library at this university.

One way that football programs get bailed out of their economic difficulties is through generous subsidies from their university. According to Tim Sullivan, “SDSU profs say football `profit’ doesn’t add up’ Union Tribune (San Diego) (9 Nov. 2007), SDSU football turned a “profit” only after receiving subsidies from the university. An independent audit showed SDSU football had actually lost $1.6 million, even after receiving a subsidy of over $800,000. Part of the subsidies came from increased student activity fees – against which the students had voted. SDSU is not unique in relying on forced subsidies from the entire student body. I thought football was supposed to be for the benefit of the students.

Virtually all football programs below the FBS level lose money, and few college presidents have the courage and foresight of Maravene Loeschke, president of Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. Without operating under preconceived ideas or myths about football increasing enrollment at small universities, she simply looked at the math. Mansfield, with a steady enrollment figure, could not continue to allocate over $400,000 to a football program on the backs of student fees when that money could be more productively utilized elsewhere in the university. Maravene Loeschke, “No Sacred Cows,” Inside Higher Ed (9 Feb. 2007). Few college presidents have Loeschke’s courage.

I don’t want to see college football end. I just think that the cost of the programs should be born by those who actually want the service. Those students who want to go to the games can pay higher ticket prices. Don’t force all students to pay higher fees. I never went to a football game when I was at Penn State (the university couldn’t afford to put books in the library, but they had $14 million to build a covered practice field so the players wouldn’t get wet. In a meaningless act of protest, I boycotted the games), but I had to pay higher fees to support the team. Mandatory athletic fees are only the most obvious way the university extorts money from its students. A far more nefarious way of funding football is the profits from university bookstores. University bookstores at the major universities turn millions of dollars of profits on the backs of captive consumers; smaller universities make less money, but they still treat their students the same way. To ensure that steady flow, university bookstores will do anything to keep other bookstores catering to students from opening near campus. Many universities require that all books used in the classroom must be purchased through the on-campus bookstore. Professors, who will fight for their academic freedoms in so many areas, won’t fight against this tyranny.

Alumni are also said to demand football programs. Again, let them pay higher ticket prices or make contributions to the athletic department if they want the service. In addition to alumni, universities say they need to appeal to the wider fan base in the general public. Thus, the typical fan of University of Alabama football never attended any university, let alone UA (he probably can’t spell “Alabama” if you spot him the “A” and the “l” and remind him there’s no “r” at the end, but that’s another issue). Again, if they want the service, let them pay the fees; don’t force students to bear the unwanted burden.

While I’m tilting at windmills, here’s a thought for the schools below the FBS level. University administrators claim the school needs a football program to support Home Coming activities. Instead of losing almost 10 percent of their operating budget on a football program to support one day’s activities, why not sponsor a cultural event like a craft festival? Arts and crafts festivals typically draw people from all over the region. Many universities already sponsor these activities. If alumni want to return to their school, they can interact with far more people at a fair than sitting in a stadium for three hours. A successful fair is better publicity for the university than a mediocre football team. Even if the university doesn’t make money off the fair, at least they won’t be losing such vast amounts of money. And at least the students won’t be forced to foot the bill.


Anonymous said...

Dear Spatula,
I have titled at this Windmill and it is the only time that A college President actually tried to get me out and called my boss. He claimed that since most of the students only got a half grant they actually paid more to come to school--Yes, that was his logic. I think we inside the beast see the problem but the general public doesn't care. Nice post.


seybernetx said...

I am a bit puzzled why you're so focused in on football. I suspect every argument you've listed would apply as well or better to sports like track, tennis, golf, wrestling, and basketball. (I'm also a bit annoyed by your provincial slams at Alabama, but that's another post.)

In fact, a lot of your arguments would apply to the debate team and even the music and theater departments.

Spatula said...

How many millions of dollars did the debate team or the theatre department lose last year? How many students are forced to pay fees directly to support the music department? I do have to admit that "provincial" and "Alabama" do often collide in the same sentence.

Anonymous said...

Hello Spatula,

I would like to ask you some questions about this, especially as my university's football team is sacred and our Writing Center just go shut down due to budget cuts. If you are willing to answer some questions via email, please drop me a line at 1969hayseed at gmail dot com. (I'm happy to provide my institutional email and affiliation, just not in this public a post.)



arimom said...

Or we could obsess about the discriminatory funds spent on women's studies, the women's centers, women's campus reproductive health centers, women's only scholarships, women's gender equity programs in the sciences (the later on my campus receives 4 million dollars in subsidy).... I could go on, but the ongoing attack on football which fails to account for alumni interest, the amounts of gifts given by alumni because of a football program, increased exposure, licensing, community outreach etc. Better yet, let's make the campuses for women only. Let's remove the burden on football to support other sports programs, i.e. subsidizing them. How about we take all athletic scholarships dedicated to women's sports that go unfilled (something like 16 %) and count that against the women's programs for taking up revenue that they don't use. I am all for addressing football budgets,
but not until we address the multitude of sexist and discriminatory funding that serves only the interests of female students.

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Anonymous said...

I don't know if you caught the "real sports" peice on paying college athletes but it used Michigan and Texas as examples and both make a huge amount of money. Also, does the NCAA not collect revenue from jersey sales and other licensed apparel? I would consider that money made by the football program. I just find it hard to believe that so many operate in a deficit. I really would like to see the books on most schools because I think the ungodly amount of money for TV contracts, etc. has to be going somewhere, probably to AD's and the top 12 or so employees at the NCAA that make an average of over $400k.

Spatula said...

More proof of football programs losing money, this time in bowl games: