This flood of money over the past quarter century has upended college sports. In 1990, the Southeastern Conference split $16 million in revenue among its member schools; by 2014–15, these schools were divvying up $436.8 million. Today, the top programs in the conference and other Power Five conferences cash in and spend freely, while others jockey for position in hopes of making it big. In the resulting arms race, less prominent teams pony up millions to chase success on the field and earnings at the bank, racing to recruit star players, extend coach contracts and build lavish new facilities.
But not unlike the lottery, for every Cinderella story, there are many more losers. Athletics departments rely on a few revenue-producing sports, like football and men’s basketball, to fund the cost of the many more non-revenue-producing ones – but at most schools, these revenue generators are not up to the task. Even the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s own data show only 24 of the 128 programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision turn a profit. Not a single program outside that subdivision is profitable. Only 12 universities can operate athletics programs without dipping into general revenue from student fees and other school funds. Others have been forced to subsidize their athletic programs by as much as 80 percent, costing students and the public $10.3 billion between 2010 and 2015 alone.
And even in football, profit can be elusive. For many teams, making a bowl game is the highlight of the season, giving student-athletes a unique experience and schools opportunities for exposure, but between 10 and 20 schools each year actually lose money by doing so. Most of the profits go to a few top bowls, while lesser known bowls make do with smaller payouts, suboptimal time slots and less-than-full stadiums. But even if fan interest is low, participating schools must either sell or cover the cost of thousands of tickets. In all, between 2009 and 2014, schools and conferences were left on the hook for more than $92 million in unsold tickets, not to mention the litany of other expenses required to go bowling.
At the same time, colleges are falling far short of their core mission of preparing students for success. In 2012, the University of Florida attempted to shutter its computer science department to save money, while increasing its athletic budget by an equivalent amount. Episodes at North Carolina, Ohio State and Southern California have exposed underground cultures of under-the-table incentives, grade inflation and special dispensations for star athletes.
The drive for gridiron glory is even more alarming when contrasted with the general state of stagnation and mediocrity across higher education today. Whereas universities are quick to overhaul underperforming football programs, they have not taken on academic shortcomings with any similar gusto. More than 90 percent of public colleges in the U.S. have four-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time students of under 50 percent. And students continue to graduate underprepared and underemployed, with more than 70 percent of employers deeming their skills and competencies lacking.
Now more than ever, alumni, boards of trustees and policymakers should take action to ensure that athletic ambition does not become a stand-in for academic quality. Some schools have stepped up to the task of reform. The University System of Maryland, for example, tied coaches’ compensation in part to the academic performance of players, at the urging of then-regent and former Olympian Tom McMillen.
So, sit back and watch the bowl games. Cheer for your alma mater. But recognize – when the scores are final – the unfortunate downside to the excesses of college sports. While athletics can create balance, joy, character and community pride for student athletes and fans, these benefits should not give colleges carte blanche to run roughshod in pursuit of the win.