Who Benefits From College Sports?

There is a fascinating tension developing across college campuses.  As student-athletes increasingly demand compensation for the money being made off of their athletic achievements, as fans plead for more and better facilities and coaches, others argue that there really isn’t a lot of money in these sports and they are already subsidized. Just exactly who benefits and who loses by colleges, in essence, running minor leagues for the NFL and NBA? This is a question that has baffled academics, some of whom have served on oversight committees and still have no idea what is the true net financial status of the sports program on their campus. For instance, are scholarships a credit or debit? 

The short answer: the losers are colleges, nearly everybody else is a winner. Maybe not as big a winner as they’d like, but a winner none the less.

Well, obviously the NFL and NBA are winners.  Lots of fans like to follow their favorite college players into the pros, so there is greater interest in the professional leagues.  And separating the kids who can play at that level from those that can’t is a lot easier after several years in college.  All this for absolutely no money at all. And these leagues enforce this by having rules preventing players from playing out of high school. This feels like an antitrust lawsuit just waiting to be filed…

Kids who sign big pro contracts are obviously big winners, but there is a lottery element to this; not every player who steps on a field or court will even play pro ball, let alone be well paid for it.  Going to school on a scholarship and pretending you will be a pro player and so avoiding studying anything useful is asking for trouble. If you want to be well off, you have a far, far better chance of being a doctor or lawyer than pro ball player.

Coaching staffs are huge winners.  The largest expense for nearly every NCAA program are the coaches (drill down in the USA Today website on college finances). (Lots of stadium construction companies do pretty well, too).

Fans, arguably, are big winners.  There is nowhere near the parity between major and minor league baseball that exists between pro and college football and basketball; you get nearly double the dose of your favorite sport, and often for free or cheap on TV.

Television networks win.  In an age when time-shifting is routine, multiple on-demand options are growing and ad-skipping is cutting into revenues, few live events are available to draw viewers in who will be watching all the beer and political ads. Networks are not charities; the huge sums they throw out they make back on self-promotion and advertising.

Colleges? They like to believe they are winners and any college president of a Division I school who publicly says that athletics is a drain on their university would be drummed out of town on a rail. The reality is that, financially, they are mostly losers. You often get the feeling that, just like many college athletes think they will play pro, many college presidents think they will be the next Texas.

Non-revenue sports? At some Division I schools, probably they benefit as perhaps half of the men’s football and basketball programs generate a net gain which reduces the pressure to eliminate other sports. But at other schools, the high costs of competitive football and basketball programs probably lessen the enthusiasm for other sports. (Look at places like Caltech and MIT, where there are no revenue-generating sports and no athletic scholarships. MIT has 32 intercollegiate sports, Caltech lists 17. CU Boulder? With a student body approaching 10 times MIT and far larger than Caltech, just twelve).

Student-athletes? Sorry Joe Nocera, by and large these are winners in this system.  While some sneer at getting a scholarship in exchange for playing a sport, GG knows many middle-class families who encouraged their children in some sport precisely so they could get a free or greatly reduced ride at a college. College costs real dollars, and if it is working three jobs (yes, GG has seen such students) or playing a sport, playing a sport looks pretty good. For the real star athletes in the spotlight sports, maybe this isn’t a fair deal, but for the 98% or more of the majors sports who will never play pro ball and the near 100% of the rest who won’t.  Want to find out how much being on a AAA football team is really worth? Let us end college football and let the NFL start to run a minor league system. A recent suit alleges that minor league baseball players make less than poverty level incomes.  That free college degree is looking pretty good, no?

So to recap: Winners, pro leagues, coaching staffs, television, fans, student-athletes. Losers: colleges (at least their academic side). This isn’t to say that the balance among the winners is fair (not when coaching staffs choke down two to five times the money spent on scholarships).  At a time when there are loud complaints that college education is moving beyond the means of the middle class, why would we condone shifting money into these athletic programs? What do you think would happen if, as part of the bill to the student (or parent) there was a line “forced contribution to the intercollegiate athletic department” and it was four figures? 

Curiously, it might be the actions of the student-athletes themselves that might finally bring this circus crashing down. While there is no doubt in GG’s mind that they are owed a full college education and they are owed full medical coverage for injuries sustained on the university’s behalf (the current crop of demands being made), once you move a bit beyond this you encounter financial strains that could break the system. Ideally, the pockets that will be picked are those of the head coaches (the staff often are not making big bucks) and the stadium construction companies, but with unending clamors from alumni, fans, and sports columnists to spend even more on facilities and get the best coaches (and/or pay to fire the current coach), the pinch might be put on the universities.  And at some point the rest of the student body and their parents might rise up and ask, why should we be paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars extra to attend a school with a football program? Once the subsidies stop, reality could finally set in.

And once student-athletes are simply reclassified as university employees, kind of work-study participants, why worry if they are actually students? (Some would argue we passed this point long ago).  Let them work the kind of hours employees are supposed to work.  Where do you end up? You end up with college-branded minor league teams.  Hey, why not? Does it matter to the average fan if a right guard is getting a degree in accounting or auditioning for trash hauler? Put a fence around this part of the program and say, no money in, no money out–or at least replace the charade of ‘loans’ and ‘foundation money’ with payments for use of university logos and property and bills for advertising a university. Of course then you’d probably kill off scholarships for other sports or greatly limit them, but you could promote the club sports to intercollegiate level and provide enough support for students to participate, just as smaller Division III schools do (there are 31 club sports at CU, for instance). Which, ironically, would increase student participation in sports.  Which is a good thing, overall.

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