BY GIL GAUL
In November 2016, the University of Connecticut’s Senate Budget Committee asked Athletic Director David Benedict to answer a few questions about the spiraling cost of sports on the Storrs campus. At the time, UConn sponsored 24 varsity teams and had an $80-million athletic budget. But less than half came from tickets, television fees, and other revenues schools rely on to fund their athletic departments. Instead, UConn padded the tuition bills of students with an athletic fee and relied heavily on general revenues.
In recent years, the athletic deficit has swelled to nearly $40 million, one of the largest in the nation. With student debt spiking and academic funding scarce, it was an untenable situation.
What did Dave Benedict plan to do?, one of the committee members asked.
Benedict didn’t have a ready answer. He had been on the job only six months and was still finding his way around campus. At his previous position, at Auburn University, spending hadn’t been an issue. Auburn is an SEC football power with an athletic budget of $140 million and all the bells and whistles that come with bottomless cash—giant stadiums, glitzy scoreboards, Wall Street-size salaries, catered meals, even sports psychologists.
Connecticut, on the other hand, belonged to a smaller, poorer conference. It didn’t have a lucrative television deal or fat-cat boosters. It was even having a hard time selling tickets to its football games, ordinarily a rich source of revenue. It wasn’t hard to see why. The team hadn’t posted a winning record in six years and had won just three games that fall, at a cost of about $5 million per victory. The school’s 40,000-seat football stadium, Rentschler Field, felt desolate, with fans occupying just one of every four seats. The football-focused model of Big Time athletics didn’t work for UConn. Nevertheless, it persisted in trying to compete at the highest level, a no-win arrangement.
Benedict used PowerPoint charts to highlight revenue and spending for the committee. Some of the charts glowed red, signaling losses. But Benedict was upbeat and told members he would find savings where he could. “He then emphatically stated that there are no plans to consider reductions to specific sports at this time,” committee minutes show.
At first, little changed. UConn continued to spend generously on football and basketball, and even announced plans for a new ice-hockey arena. Meanwhile, the deficit mounted. In fiscal year 2020, football lost about $15 million, and the athletic department’s deficit increased to $42 million. The administration asked Benedict to find millions in savings.
The following June, everything unraveled. In what some saw as a spur-of-the-moment decision, UConn officials announced that they were eliminating four teams and trimming scholarships for several other sports in an effort to reduce the deficit. But, remarkably, football wasn’t included. It was too important to cut, Benedict explained in a university statement. Instead, UConn slashed men’s cross-country, tennis, swimming and diving, as well as its entire women’s rowing squad, 61 members strong.
The announcement set off a furious scramble among athletes and coaches gutted by the decision. A dozen women rowers sued the university, alleging bias, and requested a temporary restraining order. In May, a federal judge ruled that they were likely to prevail in their lawsuit, and UConn officials agreed to reinstate the rowing program for at least two years.
It was a victory for the rowers—at least for now. But UConn’s athletic finances remain precarious, dragged down by its costly football program and staggering deficits. As for the other athletes and coaches not covered by the lawsuit, they are the victims of a punishing recalibration that is reshaping college sports, shrinking opportunities, especially for athletes in Olympic sports, even as the big-money sports of men’s football and basketball continue to bask in an excess of riches, untouched.
To be sure, college athletics has faced challenges before, including the Great Recession in 2008. But none of those events comes close to the magnitude or turbulence of the current crisis. In the last year alone, hundreds of teams have been eliminated and thousands of athletes have seen their careers cut short, virtually all in small inexpensive sports that cost a fraction of football or basketball.
Most of the focus on the crisis in college athletics has been on the Covid virus, which last year emptied campuses and stadiums and drained athletic budgets. But even before the virus, college athletics faced unprecedented challenges, including whether or not to pay players, sexual harassment and recruiting scandals, and a widening divide between rich and poor programs. The financial model underpinning athletics is broken. The largest, richest schools are spending at a reckless pace, lavishing millions of dollars on coaches, taking on extraordinary debt to erect larger stadiums and facilities, while larding their staffs with psychologists, learning specialists, tutors, chefs, strength coaches, even airplane pilots. Smaller schools that can’t afford all the posh amenities nevertheless try to keep up, spending themselves into an ever-deeper hole, then tax their debt-ridden students to cover the losses. In some cases, 80 percent of their athletic budgets come from university subsidies and fees—about $2 billion in all.
The largest, richest schools are spending at a reckless pace, lavishing millions of dollars on coaches, taking on extraordinary debt to erect larger stadiums and facilities, while larding their staffs with psychologists, learning specialists, tutors, chefs, strength coaches, even airplane pilots.
“If you’re not at the very top, it doesn’t work. The model fails economically,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who writes extensively about college sports.
Even at the top of the pyramid, only about 30 schools make money. The rest lose millions—tens of millions in some cases—but still spend like “drunken sailors,” one analyst says, trying to keep up.
Complicating matters is the battle over whether to share the wealth from football and basketball with players, effectively making the athletes professionals, and raising vexing questions about the nonprofit tax status of elite football programs.
After a year of dithering and delay, the NCAA this summer agreed to allow athletes to earn money from autographs, photos, personal appearances, and endorsements. Why not? goes the argument. Star players generate billions in revenue for their athletic departments. Why shouldn’t they be able to grab a little of the cash? Sure, it’s hard to deny the athletes, many of whom come from poor backgrounds, but the decision blurs the lines between professional and amateur. How will we look at football players hawking hoagie shops, sports drinks, local gyms, and used-car dealerships? The quarterback of Alabama is said to have already lined up $1 million in endorsements—and he had yet to play a single down for the team! Do you think Crimson Tide fans will view him as a college athlete when he inevitably makes a bad play, or as an overpaid professional?
Money changes expectations—the expectations of fans, coaches, and athletic directors. Oh, and television executives, who pay billions of dollars to fill up weekend television with college-football games. They will likely brand these highly paid athletes stars, highlighting and promoting each great play and fumble, thus further enhancing their earning potential.
Finally, allowing players to cash in on their names and images prompts questions about compliance. Who will set and enforce the rules? Not the feckless NCAA. It waited a year for Congress to set standards, only to see the lawmakers punt. The states? It’s unlikely. State legislators generally do what the football coaches ask, which is pretty much nothing. Which means it will be left to the schools, with the potential for a free-for-all very real, even likely.
“Does it feel like a watershed moment?” asked Kathy DeBoer, a former university athletics administrator and the longtime executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. “Yes, it does. For 20 years, we have been saying the model is broken. No one listened. The Covid-19 virus just amplified the places where it was broken. It was coming apart anyway.”
College sports won’t end, at least not literally. Games will go on, if for no other reason than fans, college presidents, and deep-pocketed television executives will demand they go on. But it will be a vastly different landscape, dominated by 50 or 60 athletic factories—and then everyone else. At a growing number of schools, sports will shrink as athletic directors focus exclusively on teams that make money and compete for national titles. Meanwhile, Olympic teams will be shed, scholarships eliminated, and historic rivalries ended as schools scramble to join new super conferences, and money trumps geography and loyalty.
Oddly, it will be bigger, gaudier and noisier, yet also smaller, poorer, and less collegial.
The unraveling: Secrecy, Covid, and cuts
To understand the ongoing crisis better and how it is likely to change college sports in the future, Rowing News decided to take an expansive look at the landscape of college athletics, with a strong but not exclusive focus on crew and other Olympic sports.
The magazine’s months-long analysis included a detailed examination of the financial model underpinning college athletics, the outsized importance of football to that model, a review of spending at dozens of universities, and interviews with athletic directors, coaches, athletes, alumni, attorneys, and economists who study college sports.
It’s worth noting at the outset that most athletic directors declined to speak publicly—probably with good reason. Most of the decisions to cut teams were made secretly, with little if any input from coaches, athletes and alumni, our inquiry found. Even when athletes and supporters offer to pay for the teams themselves, often they’re told that the decisions are final, and no additional amount of money can change that.
At Stanford University, prominent alumni formed a group called 36 Sports Strong to raise funds for men’s rowing, women’s lightweight rowing, and nine other teams that Stanford abruptly announced it was cutting in July 2020. The cuts felt like a betrayal, the alumni said. Stanford had long been viewed as a model for college athletics, offering dozens of sports for hundreds of athletes, while competing successfully at almost every level and largely operating scandal-free.
The alumni group quickly received pledges of $30 million to help pay for the 11 sports, and expected to raise significantly more, members said. But at first it didn’t appear to matter. Stanford administrators showed little interest in their efforts or in reviving the teams. (The group 36 Sports Strong took its name from the number of teams Stanford sponsored before the cuts.)
“To tell you the truth, they were very dismissive,” said Kathy Levinson, one of the group’s founders and a former three-sport star at Stanford in the 1970s. She spoke with both the athletic director and university provost, offering to fund the teams. “I couldn’t get a straight answer. It felt insulting. I came away with the impression that they were just covering their tails.”
For months, the university refused to budge, even as protests and bad publicity mounted. But then, apparently realizing the magnitude of their mistake, administrators began to listen to the athletes. And in May, 10 months after the initial announcement, they reversed their decision and agreed to restore the 11 teams to varsity status.
President Marc Tessier-Lavigne cited improved investment returns but also called for an historic fund-raising push to underwrite sports. In effect, Stanford, one of the richest schools in the nation, is resorting to charity to balance its athletic budget.
That should alarm hundreds of smaller, poorer universities that lack the resources of Stanford and don’t have wealthy donors willing to step in and fund athletics, especially Olympic sports. They face painful choices ahead, including cutting teams, scholarships, and aspirations, or requiring athletes to pay for the privilege of competing. These shifts will alter traditions dramatically, ending such sports as cross-country, swimming, and gymnastics, and creating on some campuses a post-industrial landscape of empty stadiums and arenas.
Stanford is among a growing number of schools that are moving to shelve the century-old model of athletics introduced by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, that calls for a wide offering of sports as an integral part of the educational mission. De Coubertin advocated “broad-based athletic education accessible to all,” believing that it served as “a basis for civic life.”
The Olympic model worked well when college sports were simpler, competitions were regional, and costs were manageable. But that all changed with the introduction of television. Sports became another form of entertainment, with national contests and vast sums of money at stake. Stadiums became bigger and more elaborate. Salaries soared. A vast array of back-office functionaries and support services appeared. Sports, in a word, became complicated, and expensive.
Today, many schools contend that they can no longer afford all their teams and need to adopt a narrower, less ambitious approach. In some cases, they say it will save money. In others, they say their athletic programs have grown too large and cumbersome. They need to downsize.
When Stanford announced its cuts, it said it intended to use the savings to spend more on football, basketball, and other teams with a chance of vying for national championships (think branding). About the same time, Brown University officials complained that they had too many mediocre teams and announced plans to cut 11 sports. Their stated goal, revealed in court filings: to win more Ivy League championships.
This so-called “focused excellence” approach pursued by Stanford and Brown highlights an important shift in college athletics over the last few decades. As college sports became increasingly commercial, with billions of dollars at stake and constant exposure on television, the pressure to win became all-consuming, resulting in the shuffling of coaches and athletic directors who failed to deliver. By one count, schools spent $300 million in a recent five-year period buying out the contracts of losing coaches. Two failed football coaches alone received over $20 million each not to coach—the combined $40 million is enough to cover the salaries of about 300 full-time professors at their schools.
“It’s a winner-take-all market,” said Ohio University professor David Ridpath, who studies college sports, “and very few can.”
But even championship trophies no longer guarantee a team’s survival. If the championship isn’t in a high-profile sport such as football, with all the attached money and television branding, it may not matter.
Stanford planned to eliminate two of its most successful teams—men’s wrestling and women’s lightweight crew. Wrestling had its most successful year in school history in 2020-21 and produced in Shane Griffith a national champion. Griffith competed in an all-black singlet without the Stanford logo to protest the elimination of his team. Meanwhile, the women’s lightweight squad had won nine of the 10 most recent national championships sponsored by the Intercollegiate Rowing Association.
“It’s absurd,” said Christine Cavallo, a highly decorated member of the lightweight team from 2013 to 2017. “Stanford supposedly prides itself on being different, on being a model of excellence, and here it is cutting one of its best teams. What sense does that make?”
If one is looking for a point when the unraveling began, then the spring of 2020 is probably as good a marker as any. That May, the University of Akron announced that it was cutting its men’s cross-country team and two other sports, reducing scholarships for other sports, and trimming some salaries. Like UConn, Akron had a huge athletic deficit and a woeful football team that failed to generate revenue.
Over the next three months, Connecticut, Brown, and Dartmouth revealed plans to eliminate an additional 19 teams, while George Washington University said it was cutting seven teams, including men’s rowing.
From there, the cuts snowballed. In August, the University of Iowa said it would cut its men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, men’s gymnastics, and men’s tennis. The University of Minnesota announced it was slashing its men’s indoor and outdoor track teams and two other sports. Michigan State said it was cutting its men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams. San Diego State University and Nova Southeastern University announced they were eliminating their successful women’s rowing programs, while William & Mary said it would discontinue seven sports, including men’s and women’s swimming and men’s indoor and outdoor track. Clemson, one of the richest athletic programs, with a budget of $132 million, said it could no longer afford its men’s cross-country and track-and-field teams, even though the combined budget of those teams was less than one-fifth of what Clemson paid its head football coach, Dabo Swiney: $9.3 million.
Facing protests from athletes and the threat of lawsuits over gender-equity issues, Brown, Clemson, William & Mary, Connecticut, and a few other schools gave reprieves to some of their teams. Schools also faced charges that they were unfairly punishing male African-American athletes, who comprise a significant percentage of their track-and-field teams. Fearing a public shaming, they restored the teams—at least for now.
But without the threat of embarrassing lawsuits, scores of other schools continued to eliminate teams. By last fall, 230 teams—mostly Olympic sports—had been slashed, according to a count by the website ScholarshipStats.com. (Another group put the count at over 300.) Those figures represented double the number of teams eliminated in the Great Recession, and included 49 tennis teams, 26 golf programs, 20 cross-country teams, 17 swimming programs, 12 track-and-field teams, and seven rowing squads. Surprisingly, over half the cuts were at Division I and II schools, the largest programs with the most resources. The rest were at smaller Division III and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics schools.
“It’s mainly the fate of Olympic sports, which also happen to be the quintessential sports, the reason we started playing sports, not the big professional sports of football and basketball,” said Bebe Bryans, the veteran head coach of women’s rowing at the University of Wisconsin. “This [Covid-19] disaster became a great excuse to make changes. People want to focus on what makes money. But college sports is supposed to be about the experience of the athletes, and what they get out of it, and that’s just not the focus anymore.”
Even as the initial cuts were being made, a group of athletic directors representing 67 schools known as the Mid-Majors petitioned the NCAA to offer fewer sports. Citing the Covid pandemic, the athletic directors asked for a waiver of up to four years from the governing body’s requirement that they offer a minimum of 16 sports. To some, it felt as though the athletic directors “were trying out an idea,” said Kathy DeBoer, “especially when you saw they were asking for four years.”
The idea was that the NCAA would agree to lower permanently the number of sports that its members are required to offer. That would make it easier for the Mid-Majors to shrink their athletic departments and, in theory at least, operate more efficiently. The 67 member schools of the five Mid-Major conferences face a confounding challenge. While they try to compete at the highest level in football and basketball, they don’t have the resources of the largest, richest schools and lose billions annually.
“In the winner-take-all market, the richest schools always win, but the little guys still think that they can do it, and often try to do it by any means necessary. It doesn’t work. It’s a losing proposition,” said Ohio University’s David Ridpath. His school is a member of the Mid-American Conference, one of five Mid-Major conferences, and relies heavily on university subsidies to fund its athletic programs. The annual cost to Ohio University students swelled to $736 per student last year, according to a survey by the news website Cleveland.com. At Akron, another Mid-American member, it was $1,528 per student.
Three decades ago, Tom McMillen, a former star basketball player at Maryland and at the time a new member of Congress, tried to draw attention to the broken system of college athletics. In 1991, he introduced legislation to curb coaches’ salaries and slow the seemingly relentless commercialization of college sports at the elite level. His proposal went nowhere. Yet three decades later, McMillen still believes something needs to be done.
“We can’t keep going as we are,” he said. “It’s an unsustainable model that works for only a few. It’s death by a thousand cuts for everyone else.”
The paradox of college sports: More money
than ever, but fewer opportunities
In effect, college athletics has devolved into a zero-sum proposition, with clear financial winners and then everyone else, much like the rest of our economy. In this scheme, schools like Alabama, Michigan, Texas, and Florida enjoy a flood of cash, while Akron, Ohio University, and hundreds of other smaller, poorer schools lose millions struggling to keep up.
The Darwinian nature of the model can be traced to two events: the rise of college football as popular entertainment; and a 1984 Supreme Court decision that stripped the NCAA of its control over television rights for college-football games, freeing the football powers to cash in and use the money to create stand-alone athletic departments, separate from many university requirements.
Before the ruling in NCAA v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma, the NCAA strictly limited the number of televised games to one or two a weekend, fearing more exposure would damage game-day attendance and dilute football’s appeal. That thinking couldn’t have been more wrong. College football was already wildly popular, with record attendance and strong television audiences. Oklahoma, Georgia, and a handful of other football powers bridled at the NCAA’s restrictions and negotiated a separate television contract with NBC to broadcast more games. The NCAA sued to protect its broadcast monopoly, but the Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, ruled against the governing authority, saying its actions violated antitrust provisions.
After the Regents decision, universities and athletic conferences were free to negotiate their own contracts. Notre Dame cut an exclusive deal with NBC to broadcast its games. ABC and CBS signed deals to showcase games from the SEC, Big Ten, and other conferences. In the 1980s, a relatively new sports-centric cable channel, ESPN, began buying up rights for billions of dollars. Another new channel, Fox, later matched the offers. Then, in the mid-2000s, the five largest athletic conferences formed their own channels to broadcast games the networks didn’t want, adding hundreds of millions more to their coffers.
A handful of conferences grew absurdly rich. They now act like banks, writing huge checks to their member schools. Meanwhile, for the networks and cable channels, college football is live content, which they can sell at a premium, charging dearly for advertising. For the schools, television pass-throughs represent the equivalent of found money, a lucrative source of income that has ballooned to over $2 billion a season, and now represents one quarter of their budgets.
The bonanza doesn’t end there. Athletic directors realized they had an increasingly valuable sport and took steps to monetize their football programs. They built larger, more elaborate stadiums, with premium seating and skyboxes, where they could sell alcohol and provide catered meals to donors and corporations willing to pay steep annual fees. Then they added what they euphemistically called “voluntary seat donations,” licensing fees fans are required to pay in order to secure season tickets. These donations were never truly voluntary; if fans wanted a good seat on, say, the 50-yard line, they either paid the “donation” or they didn’t get the seat. (The price of the ticket was separate.) Many big football schools designed color-coded seating charts showing exactly how much the “donations” cost for different sections in their stadiums. Less desirable seats might require a $500 donation; premium seats, up to $20,000 or more.
Demand has never been an issue. A few years ago, the University of Alabama athletic department boasted that it had a waiting list of 26,000 fans willing to pay thousands of dollars each in “donations” to secure season tickets. In 2018, those donations totaled slightly more than $30 million, records show. Ticket sales for Alabama football and basketball raised another $38 million, while income from television and media deals soared to $63 million. That meant, in 2018, football accounted for nearly 80 percent of Alabama’s $167-million athletic budget.
Until recently, football-crazed fans writing checks for thousands of dollars to secure one of the 101,000 seats at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa got to write off most of their “donations” as charity. That came because Congress treated football, basketball, and other college sports as “educational,” and thus worthy of tax-exempt status. In other words, writing a check for football seats was viewed by lawmakers the same as writing a check to the American Red Cross or a local food pantry. The special tax treatment applied also to the billions the football powers collected from television broadcasts; the hundreds of millions from March Madness, the NCAA’s annual basketball tournament; and millions more from advertising and corporate sponsors, such as Nike, Under Armour, and others.
The lost tax revenue costs the U.S. Treasury several hundred million dollars annually, according to government estimates. Congress recently slashed the tax break for seat donations, but the billions in other income remain untaxed. These tax privileges help underwrite the unusual governing structure of college sports. While the NCAA is responsible for drafting football rules and regulations, at a cost of millions annually, it effectively has no control over the sport, and doesn’t receive a dime from the billions in television contracts or the approximately $400 million generated by the annual College Football Playoff in January.
In a 2020 report, the nonprofit Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics noted that over the course of the NCAA’s 114-year history, major college football programs have sought and won “greater autonomy from NCAA control.” The 1984 Regents case represented a seminal break. Then, in 1992, federal courts ruled that the NCAA was violating antitrust statutes when, as a cost-saving move, it tried to place a cap on the salaries of assistant coaches. A federal jury later awarded 1,900 assistant coaches $66 million in damages.
A decade later, the NCAA capitulated to the growing influence of the largest football schools, granting them new and powerful voting rights within the organization. The five largest football conferences became known as the Power Five. A few years later, the NCAA changed the name to the even more apt Autonomous Five—recognition that the 63 largest football schools were now essentially writing their own rules, holding their own championships, and banking billions of dollars outside the control of the governing body.
“Any time the NCAA tries to do something to modernize the situation or slow spending, there’s another lawsuit for more autonomy, another challenge,” said Tom McMillen, whose organization, Lead1, promotes policies to reform college sports. “Sometimes I think they won’t be satisfied until we’re under a fully professional model.”
In the last decade alone, spending on athletics at the top 130 football schools nearly doubled, to $8.9 billion. That dwarfed the rate of inflation (about 17 percent in the same time period) and greatly outpaced increases in spending on education. Unsurprisingly, the Autonomous Five conferences accounted for most of the spending increase. For example, in 2019, the Big Ten and SEC each spent $1.8 billion on athletics—an average of $128 million for each of their 14 members.
Many casual fans assume that some of the money from the cash-rich football powers must find its way to the academic side and benefit education. But it rarely does. In fact, one of the most glaring revelations from the current crisis is the stark disparity between what schools spend on sports and what they spend on their putative core mission.
Between 2010 and 2019, spending on academics at Big Ten schools increased by about 21 percent, according to the Knight Commission, while spending on athletics grew by 58 percent, and spending on football swelled fivefold, by 104 percent. The figures are medians, meaning half the schools spent less, and half spent more.
At the University of Iowa, median academic spending grew by 12 percent, while athletic spending soared by 71 percent and football spending by 103 percent. Meanwhile, Iowa’s athletic debt—money for stadium expansions and new facilities—bulged to $227 million, one of the largest debts nationally. Iowa also paid $1.1 million in severance to a former football strength coach who was dismissed following accusations of bullying, and $6.5 million to settle earlier discrimination charges against the athletic department, records show.
In March, Iowa’s outgoing president announced that the university would lend the athletic department $50 million from general operating funds—another sign that the stand-alone model of big-time athletics is under siege. Iowa officials didn’t respond to written questions submitted to the athletic department.
Visit nearly any football power and you will see the excess in full display. In 2019, LSU unveiled its new $28-million locker room for football. It includes sleep pods for each of its 120 players. The pods resemble reclining seats in the first-class section of an air-liner, with chairs that fold into beds, charging ports for electronics, and ventilated drawers to store musty shoes. There’s also a new team lounge, a mini-theater, and a game room.
Not to be outdone, Clemson University built a 140,000-square-foot, $55-million football operations center, complete with a miniature golf course, laser tag, and a bowling alley for the players. The University of Oregon opened its own $70-million football Performance Center, with an obsidian shell exterior, Italian marble showers, and 64 giant television screens. That’s in addition to a $42-million tutoring center that Oregon grad and Nike founder Phil Knight built just for athletes. Auburn, meanwhile, erected the nation’s largest football video scoreboard, with an LED display measuring 190 feet by 57 feet. Little wonder spending on facilities and amenities doubled in the last decade, to nearly $2 billion in 2019.
“Look at the sleeping pods at LSU, the Clemson facility, we have gone to amusement centers,” quipped University of Oklahoma professor Gerald Gurney, who has written about the arms race in college sports. “Nothing in these football facilities remotely resembles they are a university or it’s about education.”
There are few incentives to spend frugally, let alone save money for a rainy day, such as the pandemic, added Smith College’s Andrew Zimbalist. That’s because the financial model encourages athletic directors to spend every penny they take in.
“The basic model is one where there is no cost discipline,” Zimbalist said. “College sports doesn’t have anyone who owns the stock. There are no shareholders. The way the model works is no matter how much money comes in, they always find a way to spend it.”
Nothing makes this clearer than the pay packages of football coaches at the largest schools. These programs now lavish salaries on their head coaches and, increasingly, their assistants on a par with giant multinational companies At least 20 head coaches collect $5 million annually, led by Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swiney, who are paid $9.3 million, according to a USA Today database of salaries. Overall, coaches’ compensation doubled at the top football schools this decade, to $1.7 billion, easily surpassing what those schools awarded in athletic scholarships ($1.1 billion).
Saban’s career path is especially illustrative. In 1999, he earned $697,000 as the head coach at Michigan State University. But he felt undervalued, and when LSU offered a $1.2-million contract, Saban moved on to Baton Rouge. LSU even flew its chancellor, Mark Emmert—now the NCAA president—on a private plane to pick him up. After winning a national title, LSU bumped Saban up to $3.5 million. But he again grew restless and accepted an offer to coach the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. That didn’t turn out well, and two years later, in 2007, Saban was lured to Alabama, where he has won a remarkable six national championships and has seen his salary approach $10 million.
Saban earns over 60 times the salary of a full professor at Alabama. Yet when Alabama administrators are questioned about his salary, they don’t use educational language; they use business terms, including “return on investment.” They say Saban is worth every penny. He packs the stands at Bryant-Denny Stadium. He wins championships. Athletic department revenues have nearly doubled, to $167 million, most of that from football.
Of course, spending has also spiked. Nick Saban doesn’t come cheap. The Alabama football budget has tripled, to over $70 million. Coaches’ salaries and perks now top $20 million. Steve Sarkisian, an assistant coach, collects $2.5 million. Meanwhile, administrative, back-office, and medical expenses are soaring. The football staff includes a chief operating officer, two directors of football operations, two special assistants to Saban, two directors of player personnel, three directors of player development, and eight football analysts, among others. In addition, the department employs three pilots, an executive chef, 14 strength-and-conditioning coaches, and an array of learning specialists and tutors to ensure players make the grade.
Alabama isn’t unique. Look at most top football powers and you’ll find the same lavish spending. Football players get catered meals, stay in hotels the night before home games, fly on chartered planes, and get special tutors. Kansas even uses retirees to track the players around campus to make sure they attend class.
“Instead of cutting some of the excess, they’re spending like drunken sailors,” said Kathy DeBoer. “And then when the bottom falls out with Covid, look who they blame. They blame either the women or the Olympic sports. I mean, you have a budget of $130 million and you’re cutting your track team. Are you kidding me?”
One of the hardest hit sports has been men’s wrestling. Hundreds of teams have been axed since the 1970s. While some have been added back, it’s been at smaller schools and, perhaps surprisingly, 89 have been women’s teams, one of the fastest-growing sports.
Just one of every five D-I schools now has a wrestling program. The mighty PAC-12, which calls itself “The Conference of Champions,” has just two—Arizona State and Stanford. The cash-rich SEC has only one—Missouri.
“One problem is the focused-excellence approach,” said Michael Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Association. “It goes against the fundamental part of athletics—that we all need to work together. It shouldn’t be the Hunger Games, where this sport provides a better experience than another.”
And yet, more and more, that’s the approach schools are taking. By pouring money into a small number of sports and winning championships, athletic directors and university presidents believe they can use athletics to polish their brand and attract more and better students. They even have a term of art for the approach. They say football is the “front porch” of their universities, a portal through which students and alumni pass and discover the rest of their offerings.
All of which begs the question: What are the Olympic sports? The back porch?
“The front-porch argument is a sham,” said Ridpath. “Research is as much a front porch. Art and drama and dance bring in marketing and attract students. Those are real connections.”
Often, schools with the biggest budgets offer the fewest sports. This is particularly true in the SEC, ACC, and Big 12, where schools often offer the minimum number of teams required by the NCAA, or only a handful more. In 2019, Texas A&M had an athletic budget of nearly $220 million, yet sponsored only 20 teams. Georgia, with a budget of $174 million, sponsored 21 teams. Only two SEC schools, Alabama and Tennessee, sponsored women’s rowing.
Clemson had a budget of $132 million when it announced last November that it was eliminating its men’s cross-country and track-and-field teams. It sponsored 18 varsity teams at the time, one of the lowest numbers among all 357 D-I schools. But “after careful analysis,” Clemson Athletic Director Dan Radakovich said, “we concluded that discontinuing our men’s track-and-field program is in the best long-term interest of Clemson athletics.”
Radakovich didn’t explain how eliminating the teams would help Clemson athletics. It couldn’t have been the savings. Track-and-field accounted for only about one percent of the athletic budget. More likely, Clemson wanted to get even smaller, with just 16 teams, and focus even more of its resources on football and basketball. Football alone has a budget of $50 million.
“Clemson aspires to offer championship-level teams,” spokesman Jeff Kallin said in an interview. “Education comes first. But sure, being nationally competitive is absolutely a goal for all of our programs.”
Clemson officials were worried also about falling out of compliance with Title IX, Kallin said, which mandates that schools provide men and women equal opportunity to compete. Something known as the “proportionality test” requires schools to offer athletic slots roughly equal to the proportion of male and female undergraduates. If women represent 50 percent of undergraduates, as they do at Clemson, they should account for an equal percentage of the athletes. But a recent analysis of Clemson’s rosters, Kallin said, found that men represented 56 percent of the athletes, and women just 44 percent. “Gender equity heavily influenced our decision,” he said.
Rowing News asked why Clemson didn’t add another sport or two for women and keep men’s track-and-field. After all, women’s teams are relatively cheap, and women receive less than 40 percent of Clemson’s athletic scholarships—$6.6 million, compared to $10.2 million for men. There are also disparities in spending on travel and recruiting.
Kallin said that Clemson couldn’t afford the start-up costs.
“To add more women would come at significant cost. It comes down to whether the goal of the department is to offer more sports or a more manageable number of sports.”
Yet only a month after speaking with Rowing News, Clemson officials suddenly had a change of heart. Facing a lawsuit over the cuts, they announced that Clemson would reinstate the men’s cross-country and track programs, and add a new women’s sport in the near future.
The officials cited a significant increase in fund-raising and state appropriations for the about-face, but didn’t provide numbers. Clemson also agreed to strengthen women’s sports by implementing a new gender-equity plan.
After Covid, then what?
The Covid pandemic will recede eventually. Alabama has already said that it expects to fill Bryant-Denny Stadium this fall, virus be damned. No doubt, other football powers will follow its lead. But what will college sports look like in the years ahead? Will athletic departments continue to narrow their focus and cut any sport that doesn’t pay for itself? Or will alumni, athletes, and their parents rise up and demand a chance to self-fund their teams? No one can say, but several key trends playing out now will shape the future.
The Long Game: Football goes its own way
Football, the richest sport of all, has been playing by its own rules for years. That’s good for football, at least if you’re Alabama or Clemson, but it creates problems for everyone else. In its 2020 study, the Knight Commission suggested putting the top 130 football programs in their own box. In other words, allow the largest programs to set up their own governing body and rules—a logical extension of what already exists. The so-called Football Subdivision (FBS) already has its own championship, run by a separate legal entity, the College Playoff, not the NCAA, and doesn’t share its billions with the NCAA. Yet the NCAA is still responsible for compliance and governance issues. That makes little sense. Why not have FBS schools assume that cost and run their own show? That would finally end the charade that college football at the top schools is a key part of the educational mission, and thus entitled to massive tax breaks. And it would allow the NCAA to concentrate on all the other sports, preserve what remains of the battered amateur model, and continue to run its lucrative March Madness basketball tournament.
Big-time football has more in common with professional sports than amateur sports, the Knight study declared. Why continue to pretend otherwise? Separating football would also “end Division I’s financially dysfunctional system of governance,” the study’s authors wrote.
“You can fully surrender to the forces of commercialism,” said college-sports economist Zimbalist. “You cut loose the top 30 [the richest of the richest football] schools, turn it into a minor-league enterprise, and pay the athletes.”
In many ways, we are moving in this direction already. The recent back-door moves by Texas and Oklahoma to join the cash-rich SEC are a prime example. There was only one reason to make the move: money. SEC payouts dwarf those of the Big 12 and are likely to swell when the conference negotiates its next television deal with ESPN. Adding Texas and Oklahoma, two historic powers, allows conference executives to demand a bigger payout. In return, ESPN adds more live content and sells more advertising.
Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12, appeared blindsided by the announcement. He lashed out at ESPN, speculating that it had helped orchestrate the exodus, and even sent the cable company a cease-and-desist order. ESPN denied any wrongdoing.
Is the SEC done? Who knows? The evolution of Super Conferences, however, is likely only to continue. Already, there’s speculation about Notre Dame and/or some PAC-12 schools joining the Big Ten. The ACC, for its part, could affiliate with the SEC as a northern partner. To remain relevant, the remaining schools in the Big 12 will need to merge with another conference.
When all of the maneuvering is finished, the conferences will be larger and richer, not to mention beyond the reach of the NCAA. In time, they are likely to secede, forming a new organization with its own rules. That group, whatever it’s eventually called, could end the requirement that members offer a set number of sports, allowing them to focus on the revenue-generating sports and convert other teams to club status. The only barrier will be Title IX requirements to balance participation. But if the football powers offer women’s rowing, and pack their boats, that shouldn’t be a problem.
There are risks. Most FBS schools lose a lot of money trying to keep up. Will that change in the new model? Will the richest schools agree to share more of their windfall with smaller, poorer conferences? Why would they?
The NCAA’s Mark Emmert has complained that separating football would remove one of its most popular and profitable sports and transform it into pure entertainment, with paid professionals. Of course, it’s easy to argue that it already is pure entertainment. What else would you call it?
Pay to play, and name, image, and likeness
That segues nicely into the next most salient trend: the debate over paying football and basketball players, and allowing college athletes to monetize their names and images.
In June, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the NCAA couldn’t stop universities from making modest payments to athletes. The decision was limited to educational benefits, such as providing laptop computers, which larger programs already do. But the ruling appeared to signal a larger, more important shift in the athletic landscape. Listen to what Justice Brett Kavanaugh had to say:
“Nowhere in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.”
Kavanaugh’s analysis was based on economics. He didn’t mention educational mission or refer to the tax-exempt status of the big-time football schools. He takes as a given that they are businesses. And as businesses they shouldn’t be allowed to stiff their employees.
The NCAA wants to preserve as much of the amateur model as possible, in keeping with the larger educational mission of most of its members. The hundreds of schools that aren’t named Alabama or Ohio State University probably support the NCAA. They can’t afford not to; the economics of trying to keep up are draining their coffers. Just ask Akron or Connecticut.
“It’s a real issue,” said McMillen, who, in addition to being a star basketball player at Maryland, was a Rhodes Scholar. “Lots of people pushing the professionalization of sports want it to be like the NBA. I don’t think that’s good for education.”
Maybe not. But the push to pay players isn’t going to end with a laptop. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat representing New Jersey and a former Stanford football player, last year introduced legislation that would require schools to share their football and basketball profits with players. By his estimate, the players would get between $100,000 and $200,000 each. That would be on top of any money athletes earn from endorsements or appearances.
Left unaddressed was how the schools might respond. Just as rich taxpayers find ways to reduce their income when tax time rolls around, presumably schools would find ways to look less profitable. And, as has been noted already, most FBS football teams don’t generate a profit, so only a small number of players at the richest schools actually might receive a check.
On the other hand, more athletes are likely to benefit from the ruling allowing them to profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL). Think of a star volleyball player with a wide following on Instagram. She may be able to parlay her popularity into deals promoting sporting apparel or lend her name or image to another product as an “influencer.”
No one knows how common these deals may become. But as Tom McMillen points out, athletes at Mid-Major schools who are savvy in the ways of social media may be just as successful as athletes at football powerhouses. Where it gets tricky is controlling the athletes. If 50 states have 50 different sets of NIL rules, who is responsible for overseeing all the deals? And what’s to stop an unscrupulous booster or middleman from getting involved? Schools may use NIL as a recruiting tool: Come to our school and we’ll help you promote yourself. As of now, all this is up in the air, but one thing is sure, said Oklahoma’s Gerald Gurney: “It’s coming.” And once athletes begin to cash in, what’s to stop them from asking for a share of the billions in television dollars they help generate?
“That’s really what scares the athletic directors and college presidents,” Gurney said. “That’s what keeps them up at night.”
Whither the Mid-Majors?
The financial model is clearly broken for medium-sized schools like Akron and Connecticut that insist on competing at the highest level in football but don’t have the resources or fan support. If the top 63 football schools break off and form their own governing body, the remaining 67 FBS schools may be forced to stop pretending they can compete at the highest levels. This could be a good thing. After all, cash-strapped universities can’t continue handing out tens of millions in subsidies forever. Currently, the average Mid-Major athletic program gets about $21 million in subsidies annually. With universities cutting staffs and closing departments, and students graduating with record debt, that can’t hold. Returning to a smaller, less expensive model might encourage schools to spend more rationally on salaries and facilities. But it will also come at a cost to athletes—fewer opportunities to participate at the college level.
Is self-funding the answer?
After William & Mary announced plans to eliminate seven of its 23 varsity teams last year, all hell broke loose among alumni and former athletes. “Things kind of got ballistic. This was all done in private. William & Mary was getting a black eye,” said Shelby Hawthorne, a financial backer of the track team.
Former athletes accused the school of sacrificing the seven teams and 123 athletes to boost its struggling football and basketball teams. They complained that the football team had become bloated, with 125 players. Members of the women’s swimming team posted a letter on the athletic director’s home page protesting the cuts, a la Martin Luther during the Reformation. Soon after, it was revealed that the school’s public announcement had been cribbed from one that Stanford used earlier to announce its own cuts, and Athletic Director Samantha Huge resigned.
Since then, William & Mary has apologized to the athletes, reinstated the sports, and said it will pursue a new model of funding in which each of its teams is responsible for raising a portion of its budget. For example, the track team has been given a goal of raising $800,000 over five years. To date, it has about $80,000 in the bank.
Self-funding and philanthropy may work at wealthier schools such as Stanford, Dartmouth, or Brown with successful, engaged alumni. The question is whether it can be replicated at smaller, poorer schools. For now, some schools don’t appear ready or willing to go the self-funding route. Akron rejected an offer to restore its cross-country program. Others appear wedded to the idea that the only way ahead is to cut the number of teams they sponsor.
“A few schools are being creative,” said Kathy DeBoer. “But for the others, it’s cut, cut, cut.”