Regular readers know that, among other things, I could be described as a sports fan. Many of you probably find that annoying and consider sports to be low brow or flat-out stupid. But I feel the need to preface today's post with a reminder that I like watching football on TV, attending a baseball game, or playing a little basketball as much as anyone. Maybe moreso. I will talk endlessly about historical baseball statistics or the logic of zone blitzing at the slightest provocation. I've been to the World Series and the Super Bowl at considerable cost. I decidedly am not That Guy Who Hates Sports.


Illinois recently became the latest state with a University system in crisis. On January 5th the interim President of the UI system released a dire assessment of their financial status and announced the kind of draconian cuts becoming common in public universities. His strongly worded statement was no doubt intended to goad the state legislature into action, but it is jarring to see things like this:

"The state’s credit rating has been recently downgraded and among the 50 states only California is worse."

"The consequences for our University and others in this state are unprecedented and worsening. In our case, the University of Illinois has received only 7% of this years state appropriation since the first of July. The shortfall is more than $400 million and mounting. At some point we will be unable to meet payroll and complete the academic year unless there are significant payments from the state as promised."

"In anticipation of next years challenges, academic and administrative support units should consider issuing notifications of non-reappointment for selected individuals in employee classes whose terms and conditions of employment require advance notice of termination."

Thus Illinois joins California, Georgia, Wisconsin, and many other large public university systems in instituting furloughs (which is a nicer way of saying "paycut"), hiring freezes, and tuition hikes to cover substantial budget shortfalls. I understand clearly that state legislatures are cutting funding for higher education because they're broke. They're cutting everywhere they are legally able to make cuts. Fine.

Here is my question: why do broke Universities still have athletic departments? Simply put, programs unessential to the core mission of the university should be eliminated or cut to the bone before a single penny is taken out of academics and research.

The vast majority of athletic programs lose money. And by "the vast majority" I mean almost every single one. The most recent NCAA summary report states that 103 of 119 Division I athletic programs lost money, an average of $8 million per program. And not a single Division I-AA program made a profit. All 118 lost money, many losing over million.
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Keep in mind that I-AA schools are traditionally small, regional public schools that are poorly funded to begin with.

One of two things needs to happen. First, athletic departments can be subject to the same draconian logic applied elsewhere on campus and forced to make cuts until they break even. This will undoubtedly upset the balance of male and female athletic scholarships mandated in Title IX, as football teams will be far more likely to make money than a track or diving team. If that bothers anyone, here's the second option: do away with all of it. The number of programs that can make money on their own is much smaller than you'd think; just because the football team draws 50,000 fans per game doesn't mean they're not losing money. So off with all of their heads. None of it is essential to a university's mission. The highest paid state employee in any state is inevitably a coach at one of the public universities. The Governor makes $200,000 and Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer or "Coach K" are signed for 5 years, $25 million. If Illinois is so broke that it is legitimately worried about finishing the academic year, why is it paying a few million to its high profile football and basketball coaches?
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I like to say that each constituent group of a university is motivated by a single concern. For students, it's drinking. For faculty, it's parking. And for the alumni, it's football. The pressure to maintain athletic programs (and pump money into them until they are good) comes overwhelmingly from alumni, overgrown fratboys who made some oil money and like having their ass kissed when they return to campus. Fine. Make the alumni cough up the money to run the programs at break even or abolish it all. While we're at it, why do the pro sports leagues, from the NFL to the WNBA, get to make billions while using the NCAA as a free developmental minor league?
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How about this: every time a pro league drafts a college player, the team or league is required to donate $100,000 to the general fund of his or her university along with one full athletic scholarship in that sport.

If drastic times call for drastic measures, why is the least important part of a university exempt from making Tough Choices? The last time I checked, the University of Illinois campuses have basketball teams. Football teams. Women's speed skating teams. All of it costs money and none of it is necessary. If professors are taking 10% paycuts and non-academic staff – administrators, people who clean your kid's dorm, and so on – are being fired, there is no justification for athletic department expenses beyond on-campus recreational/intramural sports. Enough with the bullshit about how "Athletic budgets are separate! They don't take money away from academics!" That sleight-of-hand bookkeeping insults the intelligence of everyone who sees it. Universities have a finite amount of money available and they divert large portions of it to sports. It is a zero-sum game. Tuition is going up, salaries are going down, people are getting fired, and classes are going to get a hell of a lot larger.
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Athletics, as enjoyable as they may be, are a luxury that we simply cannot afford if the apocalyptic predictions of our policymakers are accurate.


  • Two quick comments:

    1. Cutting a sports team is a lot more visible than hiring adjuncts or inflicting pay cuts on faculty.

    2. I'm not sure that football programs are more likely to make money. Yeah, maybe 30 big I-A programs can generate serious cash, but football is extraordinarily expensive. I'm assuming that diving and fencing, for example, don't make money, but I'd be willing to bet that they lose less money than most I-AA football teams.

  • Ok, I support your conclusion, but it's misleading to say that athletic programs lose money.

    Sure, sure, an athletic program itself may be operating at a loss.

    There may be some revenue allocation problems—how much branded merchandise would the school sell if there weren't athletic programs? Certainly, less.

    Also, the school gets benefits from the athletic program (beyond just the alumni satisfaction): hard-to-measure brand equity. And, frankly, that benefits the non-athlete students.

    For undergrad, I went to (arguably) one of the top schools for engineering, in the country. #1 in engineering "specialty schools" in USN&WR, and all that.
    When I went to get a job, I had potential employers ask:
    1) if it was a real school
    2) why they should hire me when person X from "crappy school with tier-2 football team" had a slightly higher GPA than I did

    Now, that's a marketing challenge for my alma mater. It's one that schools like MIT and Cal Tech faced without having athletic programs.
    But, frankly, a lot of people wearing your school's logo embroidered on the breast of their polo shirt helps establish your brand recognition.

    [Would you rather have an engineering degree from, say, Rose-Hulman, or one from Indiana State? I contend that your education might be better at RH, but that the ROI might be better at Indiana State, largely because their athletic program buys them brand equity.]

  • All I can offer is what I was told by a member of my alma mater's Alumni Extortion Squad: loyal athletic supporters donate considerably more than those of us who never got worked up about the home teams, and tend to enroll their offspring with fully paid tuition. Consider sports an advertising loss leader.

  • I'll say one thing for cutting university athletic programs: I can't think of a faster way to get the moron electorate of this country to wake up and support more federal stimulus money to balance state budgets.

  • I must correct you. Illinois does not have a Women's Speed Skating Team. They have a Women's Synchronized Skating Team (sponsored thru Campus Recreation), and allows an independent Speed Skating Club to use the Ice Arena, but the athletic department does not fund a Speed Skating Team of either Gender.

    And happily, Zook will be subject to furlough.

  • I think the Pro Leagues should pay the full freight for their "farm teams". Then there would be money for other programs like fencing and swimming.

  • You mention the sports teams keeping the alumni happy. Honestly that is their #1 goal. Universities receive a ton of money from alumni. In fact, if you graph out the wins from their major sports teams alongside the dollar amount received from alumni, you'll see that the more they win, the more money comes in.

    To keep the alumni happy, you need a winning team. To get a winning team, you have to spend money. Quality coaches aren't cheap. If you manage to find a cheap quality coach, he won't be cheap for much longer.

    The athletic departments may be in the red when you view their costs compared to what they receive in ticket sales and TV contracts. But that doesn't take into account the amount of money the University receives thanks to alumni excited about their alma mater.

  • YES! This issue cuts close to the bone for me, I admit: I work in administration at one of those small, regional, poorly-funded public universities, and my office's staff has been cut by a third. When I think about our (perpetually losing) football program in its brand-new multi-million dollar facility with its 15 coaches and dozens of full scholarships for truly sub-par "students" steam pours out of my ears. We could hire FIVE FUCKING PEOPLE with the money that goes towards ONE assistant coach's salary. Right now we can't afford to buy fucking PENS. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.

  • God bless you, my man. I am a guy who hates some sports, not all. (No, I'm not into chess or sudoku). But I could never understand this American anomaly — lavishly funded, loss-making athletic departments in universities that are basically there to educate kids, not turn them into misogynistic asshole meathead frats. I completely endorse your point.

  • This is just a question. Every time I see this debate take place, someone says that sports programs are financial losers. Then someone says that's not right because of alumni donations. I'm surely not the first genius to think that the studies that purport to show that sports programs are financial losers should take account of alumni contributions. Then I think that since I'm not the first genius to think of this, maybe (just maybe) the studies did take account of this. Yes, the inference from 'should' to 'did' is precarious, but didn't the studies take account of alumni contributions? Little help, please.

  • "The vast majority of athletic programs lose money."

    I'm no expert, but isn't that something like how the movie studios "lose money" when they make movies? It's just a mechanism to avoid paying taxes?

  • The emphasis on the budgetary impact of athletics and the calculus of alumni donations is a sideshow. Since there is no consensus on the net financial benefit to a university's academic and educational missions, isn't it better to bracket this debate and ask whether the emphasis on athletics at a university is appropriate at all? I say this as a fellow lover of sports who recently finished my PhD at an institution that was an uneasy marriage of two components: "private university attempting to transition from a safety school for rich kids too dumb to gain admission to the Ivies, Duke, or Stanford to a major research university" and "sports factory." Athletics as a major component of university identity is part of an ideological conception of what an undergraduate education is supposed to be about–a consumer-friendly, intellectually interesting but not demanding, period of amusement and diversion that offers "brand equity" instead of intellectual development, since such development requires far more investment in people than in stadiums, fitness centers, and luxury dorm rooms.

    I understand the immediate concern over athletic budgets in the context of severe cuts to every other aspect of university operations, but in the big picture, it's sufficient to say that unless athletics deliver a massive financial benefit to universities that cannot be replaced by other means and without which universities cannot function, their value to a university is suspect. Most universities would make money hand over fist by selling alcohol at stadiums or student union bars, or marijuana out of vending machines in dormitories, yet most universities have discontinued the first economically rational move and none have adopted the second.

    An analogous argument might be the claim that Christian or theistic belief is a uniquely necessary basis for moral behavior. The threshhold for validating that claim isn't that some theists behave kindly (some athletic departments make a positive impact on a university budget and the university's sense of mission) and some commit wars of theocratic genocide (some athletic departments bleed cash and foster a campus community of cheap beer, recycled termpapers, and Young Republicanism). The threshold must be that there is a huge preponderance of reason to believe that the institution is necessary. If the defense of athletics is a claim of "brand equity" that is stipulated to have no calculable financial value, then my suspicion is that the actual financial value delivered is negligible.

  • As others have pointed out, the claim that an athletic program "loses money" can only be properly assessed by knowing whether this claim takes into account some estimate of the value of alumni contributions and "good will" that can fairly be attributed to the program. Universities are not run by idiots, and those who run them are usually pretty strongly motivated by financial reality.

  • Luckily my alma mater is one of the Name Brand football teams that pulls in more money than God, so my favorite sport is safe…. but who will we pay?

    I do agree with you, though, that cuts need to be made there! And I'm a big sports fan too. It's only fair. That doesn't necessarily mean dumping the program entirely, but it sure would go a long way to motivating the state to find the funds!

    Also, damn. The draft payment idea is a fucking brilliant idea! The NFL absolutely rakes it in, even during tough times. A 100K scholarship is chump change to them.

  • I just observed an argument at my high school today between the Athletic Director and the front secretary, also head of the PTA, that went something like this:

    PTA: Why do the basketball players get to come to school late? They are students first, and athletes second.
    AD: They were out till 2 am because we have trouble finding local schools to play and they had to drive a million miles away.
    PTA: Some of them were here on time–the ones with good grades came to school on time despite having permission to come in two hours late. The ones who came in late or not at all are also the starters, who are also failing many of their classes.
    AD: They're doing well enough for State Athletic Association Standards!
    PTA: If we're a college prep school, shouldn't they have to be passing all of their classes to play?

    This is the short version because this argument went on for like half an hour (I was copying a very very long packet).

    We're a small school that therefore has a small sports program, but many of our star athletes left larger public schools to come to us because they could make the team at a school of 300 but not at a school of 1000+. Coincidentally, many of these kids are complete assholes with 0.2 GPAs. They don't do better here, because we require a C to pass (no Ds allowed). Currently many of them are taking remedial classes and still failing.

    HOWEVER, although our sports program doesn't have any revenue (no gym), we still benefit financially because public schools are funded per-kid, so those kids who drop out of BigSchool and come play sports at TinySchool bring about $6k a head with them in state funding.

    So, there is a definite financial gain that we get from having an athletic program, and IN THEORY sports teach the kids good life lessons &c. I like going to the games and seeing the kids be successful.

    But I'd still rather have a losing team of B students than a winning team of C&F students.

  • I sort of agree, although I think the entire premise of college athletics ought to be changed.

    One reason that you may not see cuts is because of the following. At my undergrad institution, the athletics department is a separate unit. While it bears the name and logo of the school, it is auxiliary to it. It does not receive money from the school, it receives money from the sale of goods, ticket sales, and donors. This prevents the school from losing money to the athletics department, and also prevents the school from being sued for the shenanigans of an immature athlete. So, while the school may be forced to make budget cuts, the athletic department does not have to, simply because it is not legally tied to the institution in a way that would make it subject to the same forces. I imagine, although I am not certain, that the same is probably true about most schools.

  • good post. But I question the contention that administrators are being fired. I think they are part of the problem at big schools (like IU) and that to some extent there is a culture of overpaid and spoiled administrators one of whose pastimes is to hobnob with the state's powerful at events like football games. Their huge salary hikes haven't been slowed by the financial troubles.

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