College Sports Spending out of Whack

This opinion by Knight Commission co-chairs William E. “Brit” Kirwan and R. Gerald Turner was published in the September 17, 2010 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“The college sports offseason was filled with news of record-breaking television revenues, lucrative multibillion-dollar television contracts and a reshuffling of athletic conference affiliations designed, in part, to maximize television market share. To the American public, big-time college sports may seem to be the only sector that is recession-proof.

It’s not.

Financial data recently released by the NCAA show that only 14 college athletic departments turned an operating profit in 2009, down from 25 programs in both 2007 and 2008. In fact, only seven of these programs, the University of Georgia among them, have generated an operating profit in each of the past five years, according to financial reports published by USA Today.

While college football does generate more revenue than other sports, it also costs more to operate. Nearly 43 percent of the major football programs, those in the NCAA’s 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision, do not cover their own expenses and report operating losses, with a median loss of $2.7 million.

Despite these deficits, big-time sports continue to operate in a never-ending cost spiral — demands for higher coaching salaries, more staff, better facilities and more extensive travel.

Perhaps what makes the situation most troubling is that athletic spending is growing much faster than spending on academic programs.

Between 2005 and 2008, athletic spending on the campuses of the 120 universities playing major-college football grew at a rate of 38 percent, while academic spending grew only 21 percent.

This imbalance will likely grow when academic spending data for 2009 are released later this year.

As the college football season gets under way, it’s important to consider the sport within the broader university mission.

When athletic programs can’t pay their own way, they rely on institutions for help in the form of student fees, transfers from general fund allocations and state appropriations.

NCAA data show that the median subsidies — or the dollars provided to balance athletic budgets — rose 25 percent from 2008, to more than $10 million in 2009.

In response to these challenging financial trends, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics issued a major report to recommend solutions. The commission is an independent group of presidents, university trustees and former college athletes who advocate for policies to ensure that athletic programs operate within the educational missions of their universities.

The report, “Restoring the Balance: Dollars, Values, and the Future of College Sports,” calls for greater transparency of athletic finances; for rewarding practices that make academic values a priority; and for treating college athletes as students, not as professionals.

With regard to transparency, we recommend that NCAA rules require colleges to publish accurate and comparable information annually on what their athletic programs cost, what they make in revenue, and how much they are supported from the institution’s general funds.

Data on growth rates in both academic and athletics spending also should be made public.

Other changes we recommend could impact college football directly:

  • Teams not on track to graduate at least half their athletes should not be eligible for postseason competition, including bowl games for football teams, and thus would not be eligible to earn payouts from championship and bowl events.
  • A portion of revenue from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and college football’s Bowl Championship Series should be redirected to provide incentives for institutions to graduate student-athletes and to keep athletic spending in check.
  • The NCAA should establish limits on the number of non-coaching personnel for specific sports. In football, this would mean curbing the growing roster of personnel beyond coaches, such as strength and conditioning football staff for every playing position, directors of football recruiting, operations, and player development.
  • The number of scholarships in football should be reduced by at least 10 from the current 85, and reductions in other sports should be examined.

We have long supported the important role college sports play on all our campuses and are excited about the start of college football like many Americans. But the current situation is out of balance.

In this era of declining state support for higher education, academic leaders and stakeholders must think hard about how investing in athletics and academics will shape their institutions in the long term.

The Knight Commission recommendations allow institutions of higher education to take action now, together, to restore the balance.”

William E. “Brit” Kirwan is the chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Gerald Turner is president of Southern Methodist University. They are co-chairmen of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.