At the nation’s most prominent universities, intercollegiate athletics has always played a dual role in campus life. On the one hand, its participants are students and it is managed for the benefit of students. On the other, it inspires the interest and passions of thousands, if not millions, of fans. For most teams at most institutions, these roles can be reconciled. But in high-profile sports, tensions often surface between the core mission of universities and commercial values.
These tensions have grown significantly over the past two decades. The pursuit of television contracts and slots in football bowl games, together with the quest to win championship tournaments in basketball, have had a destabilizing influence on athletics programs. Among other worrisome developments, the intensely competitive environment at the top levels of college sports has prompted four rounds of realignment among athletic conferences since 1994; a bidding war for prominent coaches; and escalating expenses across the board.
The growing emphasis on winning games and increasing television market share feeds the spending escalation because of the unfounded yet persistent belief that devoting more dollars to sports programs leads to greater athletic success and thus to greater revenues.
In fact, only a tiny number of athletics programs actually reap the rewards that come from selling high-priced tickets and winning championships. But this reality is often obscured by headlines about money in college sports, such as the recent 14-year, $10.8 billion television rights deal for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and yet another round of conference realignments and expansions designed to increase television market share.