Colleges must restrain growth in athletics’ costs

Posted Nov. 13, 2009, at 11:06 p.m.

The myth of the business model — that football and men’s basketball cover their own expenses and fully support nonrevenue sports — is put to rest by an NCAA study finding that 94 [of the then 119 Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I)] institutions ran a deficit for the 2007-’08 school year, averaging losses of $9.9 million.”

That quote comes from a primer on the business of college sports published by the Knight Commission in November of this year.

The Knight Commission has since 1989 sought to bring some sanity to college sports’ place in university life, seeking “reforms that emphasize academic values in an arena where commercialization of college sports often overshadows the underlying goals of higher education.”

That effort was given new life this week with the publication in USA Today of the salaries of college football coaches.

Twenty-five head football coaches now make $2 million or more annually. The average head football coach’s salary in the FBS (120 schools) is $1.36 million, up 28 percent over the last two years and 46 percent over the last three.

This story follows an October 2009 report from the Knight Commission that university presidents feel “current spending trends on intercollegiate athletics cannot be sustained nationally.…”

Eighty-five percent of the presidents said they “feel compensation is excessive for football and basketball coaches.”

Half of the most publicized college sports programs “rely on at least $9 million in institutional and governmental subsidies to balance their budgets. Even in the most prosperous conference, its members received a median subsidy of $3.4 million,” according to the Knight primer.

Despite those findings, the Knight presidents’ survey also showed that, “Although research generally does not support a significant correlation between athletic experience and increased donations or better student quality, FBS university presidents are swayed by personal experience that there are cross-institutional benefits of winning sport programs.”

In other words, university presidents still aren’t willing to see the light and take responsibility for saying “no” to the out-of-control spiral of money spent on sports, particularly at the most publicized sport schools.

Instead, they are swayed by the myth cited above and forever touted by the rah-rah boosters who don’t want their lives lived vicariously through sports ended.

Salaries and benefits to coaches eat up 32 percent of expenses, according to the Knight primer. An ever-larger share is going to assistant coaches who owe their livelihood to the head coaches who won’t sign a deal unless “their” assistants are hired and at exorbitant salaries.

Have college coaches and their agents created for themselves another arena of “too big to fail” institutions that drag down university budgets as a whole?

The Knight primer also notes the widening disparity between the haves and have-nots in college sports.

Alabama’s football program is “paying salaries of nearly $6.6 million to its head football coach and his nine assistants for the 2009 season. That’s more than 32 bowl-subdivision programs spend on football as a whole.”

The primer notes that if you take the 120 schools and divided them into groups of 10, the median athletic budget for the top group is $83 million and for the bottom 10, $14 million.

Runaway salaries and athletic budgets, the lack of financial transparency, and the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots will be addressed in a Knight Commission report due out this spring.

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