Why do colleges run football teams?

by on January 4, 2007 at 7:01 am in Sports | Permalink

Over at Free Exchange Isaac Bickerstaff poses a good question:

…why are America’s institutions of higher learning also operating
semi-professional sports franchises?  Especially since overall, the
athletics department is a money-losing proposition for most schools. 
They also bring down the value of the university’s core "product", as
schools offer places and often lavish scholarships to academically
unqualified student athletes.

The evidence is mixed, but some papers find a connection between athletic achievement and student quality, or athletic achievement and alumni donations.  I suspect the donor connection is the key, but we also must ask what exactly colleges and universities seek to maximize. 

Under one view, there is some local market power, a surplus from tuition and endowments, fairly passive boards, and a faculty-driven governance structure which gives Presidents considerable discretion over non-instructional projects.  If I were a University President, I would spend money on the library, a very good music school, a concert hall, and — if they would abolish the NCAA and the zone defense — a basketball team.  Basketball is The Queen of Sports, and what better way to entertain local bigwigs and receive favors in return?

Michael Simpson January 4, 2007 at 8:07 am

For state schools at least, don’t forget about the effect on the state legislature. A friend of mine who is in budgeting for a major state university commented once that he didn’t think they’d get anywhere near the support that they did if they didn’t have a football program. (Plus, I don’t know if I believe the accounting that says that all these athletic programs run deficits – wouldn’t there be an incentive for those departments to not disclose profits?)

Andromeda January 4, 2007 at 8:41 am

I’m with DK — advertising. The state university in my hometown (WVU) has no right to be heard of by anyone on the basis of its academic quality, and indeed its name is frequently gotten wrong (it’s not “the University of West Virginia”, people), but surprisingly many people have heard of the Mountaineers. Up here in Boston, where the WVU/BC game’s been big for a few years, WVU’s gotten a lot of positive buzz well outside of its traditional recruiting areas.

Also, don’t discount the value of sheer irrational passion. The WVU football stadium seats more than the entire population of the town by a substantial margin — and regularly fills. People care about this stuff. No idea why, but there’d be rioting if people tried to get rid of the football team. And this is true across huge swaths of the country (read Friday Night Lights).

John Thacker January 4, 2007 at 8:54 am

You are a sick, sick man. Abolish the zone defense? One of the things I admire most about college basketball is the multitude of offensive and defensive approaches taken by different teams.

I feel like you’re failing to appreciate the beauty and diversity of basketball. You might as well be arguing to abolish “ethnic food,” and demand that all food be French-inspired fine dining, since that’s what the highest paid professionals do.

Chip January 4, 2007 at 8:57 am

I, for one, hope George Mason never gets a Division 1 football team. I love college football. I enjoyed my time at GMU. I just know the challenges a school has the the sacrifices it makes to field a team.

How many athletic programs has Rutgers lost to field (pay for) the football program and keep their coach?

Is this really the universities’s missions?

Maybe the University of Chicago got it right when they decided not to compete athletically in the Big 10 many years ago. Maybe major college athletics and academic missions are not the same.

Wild Pegasus January 4, 2007 at 9:30 am

The prevalence of college football is pretty unremarkable. Since ancient Greece, education meant both mental and physical disciplines. Colleges are following in a very old tradition of sports and academics.

- Josh

Felix January 4, 2007 at 10:37 am

Nice name-dropping there, Tyler! Have you managed to pierce the anonymity of Free Exchange? Where did you find out that Isaac Bickerstaff wrote the piece? And might other mere mortals be able to do likewise?

Tyler Cowen January 4, 2007 at 10:48 am

Felix, MR has so, so many little inside jokes. Try Googling “Isaac Bickerstaff” or best of all check Wikipedia…

Amber January 4, 2007 at 11:07 am

Actually, Josh, the number is six:
http://www.scarletknights.com/crew/news/release.asp?prID=4153
“The university-wide cuts will include position eliminations, layoffs, cuts in courses and course sections, as well as the elimination of six intercollegiate sports, effective at the conclusion of the 2006-07 season. The affected sports are: men’s heavyweight crew, men’s lightweight crew, men’s fencing, women’s fencing, men’s swimming and diving and men’s tennis.”

I wouldn’t be so sure that Rutgers made money on football this year, as you can read about here:
http://www.northjersey.com/page.php?qstr=eXJpcnk3ZjczN2Y3dnFlZUVFeXkxNjYmZmdiZWw3Zjd2cWVlRUV5eTcwMTUzNzQmeXJpcnk3ZjcxN2Y3dnFlZUVFeXk2
“Despite a payout of $1.25 million, Rutgers lost money on the Insight Bowl appearance in Arizona last year. The university paid the way for an entourage of nearly 300, including school officials and family members. Bonuses totaling more than $200,000 were handed out to coaches and other staffers.

It cost nearly $175,000 to put the team up at a local hotel for six home games; that item alone exceeds the entire budget for the tennis team, one of the six eliminated sports.”

And:
“He also envisions the football program making money within five years.”

Call me jaded, but that sounds like wishful thinking to me.

Also, JT: I wouldn’t make the same argument about high-dollar art and music, because those activities are educational–both to the artists and to the observers. Even I, a lifelong athlete and sports fan, cannot claim that sports are as educationally worthwhile to the observer as are art and music.

Peter January 4, 2007 at 11:17 am

It would be ideal if the NFL, which after all is the world’s wealthiest and most successful sports league, helped fund college football teams, seeing that the college programs perform a vital service for the NFL by supplying it with its players.

Bernard Yomtov January 4, 2007 at 11:25 am

I generally dislike big time college sports. This is as much for ethical reasons as any other. Too many of tthe programs simply disgrace their universities. (See Auburn, for an outstanding recent example). Even those that don’t are often destructive of the university’s educational mission. Corrupt recruiting practices, tolerating, and even encouraging, the lack of any serious academic efforts by athletes, even overlooking outright thuggery in many instances, are not practices that universities ought to be engaging in.

Auto January 4, 2007 at 11:49 am

I too dislike big money college sports for all the usual reasons. But each time I think colleges would be better off pulling out, I remember that when Robert Maynard Hutchins had Chicago abandon the Big Ten, the university went into a long decline. I don’t believe quitting the Big Ten was the sole factor to explain the decline, but it was certainly a major one. Without big time sports as a leavening agent, Chicago became monochromatically academic, and as such, a lesser institution. (When I say a lesser institution, I mean it became a college in which nothing mattered beyond class work and grades. As opposed to say, the Ivies, where students can spend four years living and breathing the Yale Daily News, to the (possible) exclusion of one’s grades — and graduate thinking one got a first-rate education.)

Maybe the Ivy sports model is best: semi-serious sports at a level not likely to attract athletes with pro ambitions; athletes are recruited but not offered athletic scholarships; athletes are smart enough and sufficiently committed to handle the academic workload.

superdestroyer January 4, 2007 at 12:12 pm

One of my favorite topics:

The Indianapolis Star writes about this regularly and dispels most of the myths about college football. The athletic departments at most universities are, in reality, a separate, not-for-profit corporation, that get to operate on their own. The university through student fees subsidizes these separate corporations at the level of millions per year. If it was not for “80% tax deductible contributions to the athletic foundations,” every single athletic department in the country would lose money instead of only 80% of the university athletic departments that currently lose money.

Football does not make money off of gates receipts, television dollars, or endorsements. Millon dollar head coaches, Ten assistant coaches, trainers, assistant athletic directors, training facilities, stadiums, 85 scholarships, tutoring, etc cost much more than any university makes. Most universities lose money just by attending bowl games (unless it is a BCS game).

If you look at the difference in football and men’s basketball versus all of the non-revenue sports, the non-revenue sport athletes are much whiter, much more likely to have attended a private school, and much more likely to graduate. The racial differences in women’s sports is incredible where there are few black female athletes except for some basketball programs and virtually no hispanic or asian athletes in any sport. If you watch the NCAA women’s volleyball finals, softball finals, soccer finals, field hockey finals, or lacrosse finals, the teams look like the whites suburban team.

As far as attraching students, does Auburn really attract better students than Vanderbilt because they have a better football team? No. The mean GPA and SAT scores for admission to Auburn are no different than the University of Alabama and are much lower than “bad” sports schools like Vanderbilt, Tulane, Rice, SMU, etc.

Jim Hu January 4, 2007 at 12:38 pm

Vanderbilt would probably attract better students than Auburn independent of whose team was better or whether or not either had a team at all. The question is whether Auburn gets better students, or more support than it would with a bad team.

Comparisons to UChicago are similarly flawed. Abolishing big-time sports is not sufficient to raise the academic quality of a school.

I suspect that from the perspective of most university administrations/regents football has the property of giving a faster return on investment in the form of positive publicity than building the faculty. The real quality improvements from the latter tend to show up after a particular regent/administrator is no longer with the university.

Cyrus January 4, 2007 at 12:55 pm

Public universities get paid more to educate out-of-state than in-state students. Therefore each public university has an incentive to advertise itself in neighboring states, and athletic conferences are born.

Amber January 4, 2007 at 1:14 pm

Are you sure Rutgers cut programs for financial reasons or was it (partly?) to be Title IX compliant? I see five men’s sports and one women’s that were cut?

I’m sure it was partly Title IX. But, given that Rutgers football loses money, the university could have chosen to save money and comply with Title IX by cutting football and leaving the other six intact instead of vice versa.

In what precise sense is music and much visual art (esp. abstract) educational in a way that cannot be claimed for athletics? Athletics can be both analytically challenging as well as have emotional and inspirational appeal. Certainly particular athletic contests and plays have artistic qualities.

I would agree that sports can be educational to the viewer. But in my recent experience attending university (classical) concerts, art exhibits, and football/basketball games, the vast majority of the people who attend the former do so to learn and stimulate their brains, while the vast majority (though of course not all) of those who attend the latter do so to be seen, get drunk and harass the opposing team/coach, and hang out with other students. I don’t think these students are deriving an educational benefit from attending. Or at the very least, they are not deriving an educational benefit that could not be gotten from a large party (which would save millions of dollars compared to having a I-A football team).

Slavisa January 4, 2007 at 2:12 pm

The whole college and high school athletics system doesn’t make sense to me. Making future pointguards graduate chemistry. It’s like railroad companies running grocery stores or movie theatars. The two are not only unrelated but conflicting, it’s bad for both universities and the athletes.

Must be a path dependency, someone started it long time ago, in the meantime sports profesionalized but universities do not reform…

RJ January 4, 2007 at 2:54 pm

Auburn has lowered it’s admissions standards over the last 6 years.

Chip January 4, 2007 at 3:00 pm

“Are you sure Rutgers cut programs for financial reasons or was it (partly?) to be Title IX compliant? I see five men’s sports and one women’s that were cut?”

For the record, I am not going to research for specifics.

Yes.

How do I know? Greg Schiano turned down the offer to coach Miami (FL).

What does this suggest? The Rutgers Athletic Department said they would pay him a salary that is competitive, pay his asst coaches enough to stay, AND upgrade the athletic facities to compete nationally. That means to me that Rutgers is willing to spend a lot of money.

Let the arms race begin in New Jersey!

I will speculate that Rutgers cut the programs for a number of reasons. One of those reasons was to keep Schiano and upgrade football facilities to compete with the “Penn States” of the world. They had to commit resources to compete.

When Rutgers builds a new weight room and dorms for the football players, does that come from the university budget or does that come from the athletic department donors?

Article on Saban and Alabama http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/sec/2007-01-03-saban-contract_x.htm

Jason Briggeman January 4, 2007 at 5:19 pm

I liked Quigley’s analysis…I believe it was that the universities started football to give students exercise, then it became an institution, ultimately providing exercise to the students who needed it the least and relegating the students in need of exercise to the stands.

Steve Sailer January 4, 2007 at 6:32 pm

The rather dilapidated Catholic high school with a mediocre football team that I graduated from in the 1970s hired an outstanding football coach a few years later. Over the last decade, it has put up $12 million dollars worth of showcase architecture. With the crummy coaches of my day, I strongly doubt the school’s revival would have been possible. I would imagine the coach’s annual value to this fairly small school approaches $1 million per year.

TimmyG January 5, 2007 at 1:05 am

If it were up to me, I’d demand that the athletic department contribute to the university’s general fund a percentage of revenues (20%?) prior to expenses. This would effectively serve as a “license” payment for use of the University name in the unofficial minor leagues. This might also serve as compensation for diluting the University’s brand (imagine what, for example the Rhett Bomar debacle did for Oklahoma (stop laughing!)), and the fact that athletics probably siphons some donors from the university, as the donors pursue better seats in a stadium instead of a better endowed English department. (Though athletics probably make the whol fundraising pie bigger.)

I’d also agree that if the accounting of athletic departments is likely to show little to no profit – why would any AD ever return more profit than necessary, if the excess instead could be spent on better coaches, facilities, or the like, adding one more reason to why the Universities should take something off the top of the athletic department.

jon o January 5, 2007 at 2:23 pm

What other metrics do we have to let us know how our former schools are going? Nobel prizes, I suppose. Oh, and the basketball team. Otherwise, our blinky brains are stuck with football scores to give us alumni a snapshot as to how things are back on the farm. Accurate? No way. But it’s not like the lit department is putting out press releases on its latest research. Or it is, but they’re getting lost in the flotsam of 6 billion citizen researchers.

Ltrain January 6, 2007 at 10:43 am

I’d be willing to guess that geographically, the Southeastern U.S. is largely unrepresented in the foregoing commentary, although there were some references to culture and utility that deserve a little more consideration….University athletics, at least in the SE, opens the door to a conversation that transgresses age, socioeconomic status, education, and decorum… there is a value to this shared culture and the barriers that the subject removes not only for alumni, but just about everyone. Educational or no, there is a value, this day and age, to 90,000 strangers agreeing to set aside their differences and biases and agreeing to agree on one thing, even if only for a few hours every Saturday in the fall.

不動産投資 July 18, 2008 at 2:53 am

資金を増やそうとするのに不動産投資をするのが手っ取り早い。日本で不動産で東京 賃貸をさがすのはきわめて難しくシステム開発は日本の会社が良い。

jennifer Tzi October 28, 2009 at 1:46 pm

roughly, how much does it cost to produce a college division 1 football team?

LashawnCherry March 7, 2011 at 3:14 am

I don’t know if there are any sports school boards criteria, because I would gladly buy tennis tickets than football tickets. It’s my personal opinion, but what’s the point in prioritizing sports instead of school internal applications? Then, I suppose, the sports attract more sponsors than any other activities.

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