College Athletics Departments Surge in Financially Down Economy

An analysis by USA Today found that spending on major college athletics programs in 2010 increased by more than $470 million over the year before. The analysis stated the concern that many colleges increased spending on athletics even while they struggled with funding reductions during tough economic times.

USA Today used open-records requests of 218 public institutions in NCAA Division I to compile a database of financial reports schools send annually to the NCAA. All told, nearly $6.2 billion was spent last year on athletics at the 218 schools. That means athletics spending grew by 3% in 2010. Total revenue grew by 5.5% in 2010.

Increasing revenue was partly attributed to television and multi-media rights and ticket sales; however, many institutions also subsidized their athletics programs with greater amounts from institutional funds and student fees. In 2010, about $2 billion in subsidies went to athletics programs at the 218 public schools over the past five years. Those subsidies grew by an inflation-adjusted 3% in 2010. They have grown by 28% since 2006 and account for $1 of every $3 spent on athletics.

The NCAA, in an annual report on Division I finances released Wednesday, noted that the median net surplus for 22 athletics programs it found were self-sufficient was about $7.4 million, and the median net deficit for the other 98 major programs was about $11.3 million. The gap of nearly $19 million is up from $15.6 million in 2009. The NCAA report includes information from private schools.

The financial figures underscore the widening gap between the financially solid programs and the rest of the pack.

Even with 2010’s more modest growth rate, these increases run counter to the national trend of declining state support for public colleges, many of which have imposed layoffs, salary freezes, cuts in course offerings and substantial tuition and fee hikes. While about a third of the 218 Division I schools trimmed athletics budgets last year, about a third either increased their spending faster than money came in, or spending cuts didn’t keep up with losses.

“Athletics apparently has no oversight,” says Ken Struckmeyer, an associate professor at Washington State University who co-chairs the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a faculty group that advocates for athletics reform. “They generate (money), then they spend whatever they bring in — and if that’s not enough, the board of regents provides a subsidy to help them win. … Apparently the measure of success of universities now is wins by the football team or the basketball team.”

Notably, the NCAA report demonstrated that five of the 22 self-sufficient athletics programs in Division I reduced spending in 2010 — University of Georgia, Michigan State University, Kansas State University, Texas A&M University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.