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February 19, 2004

College Athletics MoneyGoRound

FROM A COLLEGE ATHLETICS SPENDING ANALYSIS comes daunting affirmation of financial difficulties among most Division I athletics programs. Working from NCAA and U.S. Department of Education data from 1995 and 2001, the analysis by USA TODAY and The Des Moines Register found that average athletic budgets grew more than double the increases in average university spending at Division I schools.

Average spending on Division I athletics has increased 25%, while overall university spending increased 10%, after inflation.

A significant portion of spending increases resulted from so-called “arms race” expenditures in which top schools strive to outdo each other via upgrades that capture the attention of recruits and the support of alumni and boosters.

However, only about three dozen schools claim their athletic departments actually make money. Schools have been trying to make ends meet via subsidies from the university and from student fees--ranging up to $1000 per year.

The historic friction between faculty groups and athletics has been exacerbated by the evolving financial pressures. Most states have cut funding for several consecutive years, creating unpleasant shrinkage decisions by schools.

A nasty conflict has developed at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg VA. Faculty members have been up in arms due to a 30% drop in campus-wide spending (due to state funding cuts); meanwhile, the athletics department absorbed a nominal 1% cut in its budget.

“Everyone ought to share in the pain. Essentially, the athletic people are getting a free ride,” says Terry Meyers, a William & Mary professor.

William & Mary’s students pay a whopping annual $916 student fee. Most small schools are in the $100-$200 range. "I think if parents and students knew they were paying $916 per year to essentially support football and men's and women's basketball, they would be startled," Meyers says.

Aside from the funding issue, most college athletics constituents are in favor of bigger and better athletic programs, due to the perceived benefits to the campus as a whole. Pride and bragging rights are powerful factors.

However, the financing, sourcing, commercialization, and effect on the academic side of the school all come into play. The flip side of the thought process is the abandonment or downsizing of athletics. Such a drastic move speaks volumes about an institution’s priorities. Vanderbilt and Jacksonville U. have virtually dismantled their athletics departments, and brought the programs back under the umbrella of the university. Many schools have terminated expensive football programs and cut “minor” sports.

There’s a long term risk however.

"If you want to become invisible, downgrade (athletics) or get out of it," says David Larimore, an education professor and former AD at Tennessee Tech.

For the Division I-A schools, the lumbering elephant in the closet is big-time football, most conspicuously exemplified by the 60-plus programs involved in the Bowl Championship Series. The ante for competitiveness is formidable, beginning with the pro-level salaries of marquee coaches.

The average head football coach's base salary in Division I-A rose 83% to $388,600 in 2002, after inflation. Supplemental payments tied to shoe, apparel, camps and media deals push total compensation for dozens of football (and basketball) coaches into the million-plus stratosphere.

In some states, the coaches are the highest paid state employees.

Despite the issues related to Division I athletics funding, many schools have entered into the ring. In the past ten years, 12 schools moved up to the more expensive I-A football programs. During the same period, the number of schools moving up to Division I basketball has increased by 24.

There’s an old adage: You gotta spend money to make money.

(this 594 word excerpt was drawn from a 1789 word article on USA TODAY.com of 2-18-04; along with College Athletics Clips commentary)