Football Teams with Colleges Loosely Attached

The 2010 college football season ended with Auburn’s dramatic victory over Oregon for the national championship and with the usual meditations on how important the sport is for the colleges that play it. Athletic directors and coaches, attempting to dispel all doubt about the value of football, proudly point to gate receipts, increased alumni donations, legislative largesse and more student applications to schools with good teams.
More institutions trying to keep up with the joneses are lining up to field football programs. The National Football Foundation proudly boasted in May that “six new college football teams are set to take the field for the first time this season, with 11 more programs set to launch between 2011 and 2013.”
The belief in the benefits—financial or otherwise– of having a football team is widely assumed. Lamar University Athletic Director Billy Tubbs said, “Football is almost a religion in Texas and a lot of the country, and when we dropped football we lost 2,000 students” said. But Cornell economist Robert Frank has found “not a shred of evidence to suggest that cuts in across-the-board spending on athletics would reduce either donations by alumni or applications by prospective students.”


These new programs are justified by carefully phrased and publicized feasibility studies often bolstered by faculty vetting, and alumni and student plebiscites. Georgia State’s Athletic Director Cheryl Levick cites the overwhelming approval by the 30,000 members of the student-body to increase fees by $85 per student each semester. Without participation rates and actual survey wording, the weight of this support is questionable.
Many find support in gate and concession revenue at high profile football programs such as Longhorn football at the University of Texas at Austin. Its 98,046 ticket sales are well publicized as a major benefit. That its undergraduates are charged a compulsory athletic fee is not as widely cited.
Feasibility studies wax enthusiastic about how successful their player recruitment will be and hence how competitive their anticipated program. Visions of bowl bids with the accompanying revenue palpably dance in the authors’ heads.
Their optimism is too often focused on the revenue side of the potential accounting ledger. By the time bowl revenues are spent for the transportation, lodging and recreation of the team, support staff, marching band, pep squad and dignitaries the windfall is reduced to a pittance or often a deficit. In spite of the proliferation of bowl games and excluding the high profile schools, the majority of teams are not invited to the dance.
Most football programs are cost centers that bleed the parent institution. But colleges and universities rarely admit it. This accounting deceit, requiring subsidies from taxpayers, parents and donors, is rarely acknowledged. Outrageous head coach salaries and benefits are the most visible expense. Other costs include specialty coaches, trainers, sports information specialists, infrastructure and its debt service and list goes on. Football players tend to enjoy training table meals, tutoring and others amenities that players of lesser sports and the non-athlete student body do not have access to.
The Texas Longhorns program, with reported revenue in excess of 100 million dollars, is often cited as a leading exception in the sea of red ink.. But In| March 2010, Tom Palaima, who serves on the faculty advisory committee on budgets at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in the Texas Observer, “The NCAA program at the University of Texas at Austin generated $138 million in revenue last year, $87 million from football. Yet its profit margin is less than $2 million….The yearly debt payment on building bonds for the nearly $300 million in stadium expansions since 1998 is $15 million. The debt run up by the athletics department has risen from $64.4 million in 2004-05 to a staggering $222.5 million in 2008-09.” Palaima also addressed the scholastic side of college football: “Recently at UT-Austin, the average SAT score for all male students was 1265, for male athletes 1029 and for football players 948.”
It is unlikely that startup programs seeking to fill their rosters will be successful in assembling competitive teams. The pool of academically qualified and athletically gifted student athlete recruits cannot support existing programs. When it is a choice, academic qualifications are ignored.
These naive startups will face two questionable choices as they attempt to field competitive team. One, they can mine deeper for even more academically questionable but possibly athletically talented recruits. Two, they may choose to attract more talented players at the risk violating NCAA recruiting rules and face the same penalties that too many established programs face each year.
Football may provide some sizzle but where is the underlying educational substance? For public institutions such as University of South Alabama, Lamar University and Kennesaw State University, this is bad news for taxpayers, parents, students and donors paying the difference. Instead of strengthening their academic programming, these institutions are planning costly recreational diversions. They are entering a competition they have little chance of breaking even and winning. They have appeared to favor the slim prospect of glory and gold over investing in academic quality. The resources spent to implement and subsequently prop up these programs could be used to improve academic programs. Why not try competing on the teaching and learning plane?
Discouraging news arrived last month in a study by USA Today: “Even as many universities continue to minimize salary increases for most employees (or to skip raises altogether), assistant football coaches are seeing already generous compensation packages grow. In the Football Bowl Subdivision of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, 132 assistant coaches earned $250,000 or more, up from 106 last year. Within that group, 26 assistant football coaches are earning at least $400,000, double the number at that level a year ago.” Meanwhile teachers and academic programs are being cut. So much for campus sanity.

William Patrick Leonard

William Patrick Leonard is a Senior Fellow with New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation.

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