The Forum | Costs

Between the “Power Five” and a Hard Place

December 18, 2014

Much has been made of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) decision to end an unsustainable football program. Of all the commentary that came out in the days after the announcement, however, George R. La Noue’s blog post on the matter may be the best. Rather than focusing on the uniqueness of UAB’s decision, La Noue notes that all “mid-major” schools—those who play in Division I conferences other than the “Power Five”—are facing similar conditions.

Though they’ve been under pressure for a long time, recent NCAA rules changes that gave the biggest conferences more autonomy have widened the gap between the all-but-professional top teams and the rest of Division I. La Noue points out that competing with such powerhouses encourages smaller schools to spend money they don’t have on sports that they will never be known for—UAB was spending $20 million annually to keep their program going.

But, as La Noue points out, the issue goes deeper than the new rules:

Division I is built on four often-incompatible goals. Sports for these powers are a business, a status benchmark, a vehicle for entertainment, and a student-development activity. While some of those incongruities affect the spectrum of Division I programs, they are worse at the mid-major colleges. They have a much smaller margin for error.

As it stands, only about 20 schools make money on Division I athletics, according to a NCAA report. Demographic shifts in the student population have only made this worse—commuters and older students just aren’t as likely to show up at home games.

And sometimes those who do show up are part of the problem as well. As much as this is a story about the sway that the Power Five (and prestige generally) holds over mid-major schools, it is also a story about student and alumni willingness to subordinate academic excellence to football. As Joe Nocera noted in a New York Times opinion column:

When Watts told the team that this would be their last season, one player, Tristan Henderson, angrily challenged him in a video that quickly went viral. Later, several hundred supporters chanted and cheered for the coach, and heckled and chased Watts and his police escort, according to Jon Solomon of

Despite this response, as well as an alumni letter demanding the program’s return, UAB President Ray Watts has stood firm in his decision. He deserves high praise for his willingness to make a necessary but unpopular choice, especially since no one else has followed suit. Nocera expected many schools to follow UAB after the new rules were passed: “Maybe not get out of football altogether, but de-emphasize it so that the tail finally stops wagging the dog.” That has not been the case. Instead, says Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability & Productivity most schools are doubling down in light of the new rules:

While UAB President Watts is saying “enough is enough,” Ohio President Roderick McDavis is following a more conventional path: let’s spend more to try to break into the ranks of the athletically anointed. Facing similar facility problems as UAB, OU has built a $12.5 million indoor practice facility, primarily for the football team.

It has also announced plans for an “academic center” costing more than $5 million, which will serve as a gated community of sorts where athletes but not ordinary students can study.

He correctly points out that these schools are deluding themselves about buying their way into the bigger conferences. While changes to the structure and operation of the NCAA may someday relieve this pressure, mid-majors have an important decision to make in the meantime. La Noue ends his post by calling on them to do just that:

What to do? The first priority in this changing landscape for mid-majors is to rethink the role that athletics should play in institutions of higher education and the financial investments that should be made to fulfill that role. The answers will vary.


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