College Athletics not a white knight

I love college athletics. I grew up on college sports and some of my best memories as a kid and college student centered around college games. One of my first formative sports memories was watching Lorenzo Charles make a last second dunk in 1983 to give N.C. State the national championship. I remember watching the Hail Flutie in Miami as a young Miami Hurricanes fan. In 1991 when Jeff Blake scored a two point keeper versus Pitt to preserve the dream season I was in the stands yelling “I love college!!” at the top of my lungs. I was at Catholics versus Convicts II in the Orange Bowl when Miami destroyed Notre Dame and the last substantial moment that my father and I shared while he was still alive was attending a University of North Carolina basketball game. It was his wish to see a game at the Dean Dome even though he had never attended college. So this is not about how great college athletics is or can be. I get it. 

But what this post is about is the mirage we are sold in the name of athletics. This idea that College Sports is a solution to a problem. One of the tried and true myths of university administration is college sports are ripe with money and produce revenue for their university. Usually nothing can be further from the truth. While college sports is a multi-billion dollar industry the VAST majority of that funding is concentrated at the top in what are called the Power Five Conferences (the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 10, Pac 12, and Big 12). They account for the top 47 revenue producing programs and all of the programs that pull in $100 million or more in revenue.

However, despite all of that buying power, according to a USA Today analysis in 2015 only 12 colleges were able to operate without the need of university subsidy. Every other college in the survey (219 programs) needed at least a bit of money from their host institution. And this included powerhouses like Michigan, Florida, and Alabama. Bottom line, paying the athletic bills can get expensive. While the prestige and notoriety of a great athletic program is hard to measure it is important to recognize that in the end most college programs need additional help to make the books balance.

Now this should not be seen as a totally bad thing. Almost nothing a university does is truly revenue producing with the exception of contracted auxiliaries like housing and food service. Almost every university budget is the result of subsidies. And athletics do provide entertainment, university pride, and college access to many students who otherwise would not achieve a college degree. College sports has its place. However the issue is when a good thing becomes part of an arms race to win at all costs.

Recently Florida Atlantic University hired Alabama Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin to coach their team in Boca Raton. Now this program averages just over 10,000 attendees per game and sells most of their tickets for around $10 a pop. Kiffin was hired for around $1 million. Next year FAU would have to over double attendance and ticket sales to simply cover his salary costs.

So where will the money come from? Likely a combination of booster dollars and student fees. And why? First off, FAU is a fine university with great students and wonderful faculty. They are located in a beautiful community and the campus is awesome. But the pull of trying to win football games becomes too much and even though FAU will NEVER threaten to qualify for the college football playoffs that won’t be for lack of trying.

I teach in the Higher Education program at the University of Central Florida where my specialty if organization and administration in higher education. I have students look up and explore universities and colleges that have failed in the past. One of the colleges I ask them to review if Lon Morris College. Lon Morris was a small two-year private school in Jacksonville, Texas. Look, they were in trouble for many years. Declining enrollments and located in a hard to find place made the school hard to sustain. But they made it through fiscal stewardship and consistency. In 2009 they added football in an effort to grow. The sport ate them up and by 2012 they were closed.

College football attendance has declined for the past six years in a row and places like the University of Kansas and Illinois have seen crowds drop by 50% or more. This has resulted in the number of schools not requiring a subsidy drop from 25 schools in 2013 to 12 last year.

College sports are great. I will never stop watching or loving them. But its time we put them in proper perspective. In 1991 when I was a freshman at East Carolina University we finished with a win in the Peach Bowl and a final ranking of #9 in the nation. It was a season for the ages. And that should kind of be the point. As a grad I should never expect my fighting Pirates to ever compete for a national championship. Run a fiscally responsible program aimed at student success and excellence and leave the rest up to chance. Its not like I’m not going to still be proud. We cannot mortgage our students future and student debt chasing a profile that is ever likely to happen.

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