Collegiate athletics is likely going to change significantly in the near future and we should think together about how we want to direct that change. Collegiate athletics is likely to become significantly more expensive soon as student-athletes will soon be paid or paid more. And there is a possibility that those expenses will further eat away at the academic “side” of higher education,

At most colleges and universities, athletics 1) already uses up too much money and is 2) given too much weight in admissions. Concerning 1, most athletic departments, especially outside the elite athletic conferences, are a net financial drain on universities. Revenue-generating sports currently help pay for non-revenue generating sports. It is often claimed, usually without much evidence, that this cost is compensated for by alumni giving which is motivated partly by alum bonding with the university through its high-profile sports teams and continuing to relate to it after they graduate via following its nationally prominent sports teams.  Further, concerning 2, prowess in athletics, like playing the tuba well, is an achievement that could reasonably give one an advantage in admissions. But prowess in sports currently is given a much larger role in admissions than similar prowess outside of sports.

I am not here interested in discussing the question of whether it is good that student-athletes will be paid. (Parenthetically, I myself think that given what these athletes can command on the open market, it may prove difficult to maintain high profile college sports without paying the players.) Instead, I want to focus on the fact that that money will come from somewhere. Unless coordinated efforts are made from stake holders in the academy, those costs are likely to be borne, at least to some extent, by the academic “side” of the academy.

In my view, the present situation offers the opportunity to diminish the extent to which collegiate athletics costs money and interferes with other priorities in admissions. A possible future would involve fewer athletes getting into our schools largely due to their athletic prowess, offering the opportunity to re-direct admissions towards under-privileged, under-represented, and more academically talented students. I assume that title 9 will remain the law of the land and that we should support that. So we are largely talking about diminishing non-revenue generating sports while retaining overall title 9 levels of equality in men’s and woman’s athletics.

In practice what this means is a serious reduction in non-revenue generating sports in a way that is compatible with title 9.  I suggest we argue for diminishing the extent to which non-revenue generating sports use up admissions slots and cost our school’s money. This would allow us to 1) re-direct admissions away from treating athletics skills (at least in non-revenue generating sports) as unique non-academic qualifications for entrance into our colleges and universities and 2) recoup some of the money gained by revenue generating sports for academic purposes rather than non-revenue generating sports.

This recommendation is a compromise. Revenue generating sports are so high profile in the academy, and perhaps so beloved by alum, that combating them, at least at this moment, is unlikely to be productive. (Football and CTE will need separate treatment.) But there is another clear path to reducing the extent to which athletics costs higher education money and admission slots. Pursuing this path seems to me more urgent given the significant increase in cost of collegiate athletics that is likely around the corner.

I have nothing against non-revenue generating sports. Indeed, I played one in college. But I see it as not central to the mission of higher education to support such activities beyond the club level.

9 Replies to “What to do Now about US College Sports?

  1. Here is a quotation from Boeheim after the last game:
    “What’s so disheartening to me is when people who are really intelligent keep saying ‘They’re making billions of dollars.’ We make our share, just like everybody does, at Syracuse. We sell a lot of tickets. Our athletic department barely breaks even. Now, if you just say ‘Don’t have any other sports’ and basketball makes $16 million then we should be giving it all back. A lot of it. To the players. But all that money pays for everything else.”

    Under our current RCM budget model as I understand it, some form of which is used at many institutions, as long as a unit breaks even, everything is fine with them, even if some within that unit are contributing more to the bottom line than others. That is what Boeheim’s claim presupposes – the athletic department is a revenue center so it gets to distribute its revenues internally as it sees fit as long as it stays revenue neutral. But there are at least two ways one might object. One might ask why resources should stay within that unit. Why does basketball revenue pay for tennis but not philosophy? Or one might complain about intra-unit injustice: why should basketball revenue go anywhere except back to the basketball program including salaries for players?

    Getting back to your post: if we adhere to RCM then any money paid to basketball or football players will come from the athletic department budget, and the athletic department will have to decide what other sport to take that money from. I think I hear your post as urging us to adhere to making athletics as a whole revenue neutral even in the face of additional expenses relating to the revenue generating sports. I am inclined to agree but think the fairness issues relating to RCM are interesting. (I also don’t see universities paying players anytime soon in the absence of legal pressure that I think is unlikely to be applied.)

    Side note tangentially related: did you hear Stan Van Gundy’s interview?
    The NBA has the best coaches right now!

  2. Thanks Ben. That is helpful. My understanding is that the vast majority of athletic programs currently cost their U’s money and so would not be protected from the “redistribution” I propose by the RCM.

  3. It must be true that the vast majority of athletic programs are net money losers, but then again the vast majority of programs are not going to pay their athletes because they are not recruiting the top players. The ones that will pay their athletes are the power conference schools. Here’s a somewhat recent piece showing how many of these schools make money. It is more than I would have thought:

    Anyway I agree with your main point in principle – don’t take money from academics to fund expensive athletic programs. I just don’t like the prospect of paying the players being the thing that makes us worry about this. As the linked article shows, athletic programs already spend great sums of money on people who do a lot less than the players do.

  4. It is a good question if non-power conferences are likely to end up paying players something, but less. I’m not sure. Back in 2001 when the Shulman and Bowen book came out, almost all athletic dept’s lost money. It would be interesting if that situation has changed significantly. One wants to know if they, for example, count the costs of the scholarship to the athlete, infrastructure costs, and general advertising of the overall university.

  5. I suspect that for the power conferences, there is way more money coming in now from TV deals than there was in 2001 and this has changed the picture.

  6. I am sure you are right that revenue is way up. I should have taken you, when you briefly visited me in Nebraska, to the huge marble wall that had a waterfall flowing down it permanently in the newly built luxury football complex.

  7. If, as the Wash Post reports, fewer (but still the majority of) power conference schools now run deficits, that would be interesting and important. However, I very much want to hear about the non-power conference schools which of course makes up the vast bulk of schools.

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