mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
College Spending
Athletic Spending Crowds Out Academics

College spending on athletics is growing far more quickly than spending on academics, according to a new report from the American Association of College Professors. And perhaps the most surprising finding is that this isn’t just a problem at the big, Division I schools; spending has been growing even more quickly at Division II and III schools over the past decade. Between 2004 and 2012, Division III schools without football programs saw per-athlete spending on athletics double. Community colleges have increased spending on athletics even as they cut back on inflation-adjusted spending on academics.

Critics note that a report on excessive athletic spending by a group representing college professors, who would likely want to get some of that money themselves, is somewhat self-serving. Perhaps, but it still points to a serious problem: At a time when colleges need to spend their money wisely, it’s hard to make a case that more athletic spending is prudent.

While big schools with strong team sports use their athletic programs to develop brand loyalty and bring in alumni donations, this is a factor of far less importance at the Division III schools where the spending increases are highest. The NYT reports:

“We all see college football, we know the shiny helmets at the University of Tennessee. We know March madness, but we don’t see Division III games, or the community colleges,” said Ms. Thornton, an economics professor and coach of men’s rugby at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Even colleges without powerhouse sports programs, she said, are racing to build their athletic programs as a recruitment tool.

“My hypothesis, and it’s not yet fully proven, is that these are mostly schools that are very tuition-dependent, and they’re spending more on sports to recruit more students,” Ms. Thornton said. “But I think it’s ludicrous.”

We tend to agree. While we don’t believe schools should eliminate all athletics, it seems like a bad idea to divert resources into expensive programs at a time when the average debt burden for graduates is so heavy. Especially as students become more price conscious, the schools that deliver a quality education at the cheapest price will be best positioned to succeed; athletic spending raises costs without doing much for education quality.

This doesn’t mean that all of the added spending going to athletics should instead go to academics, as the American Association of College Professors probably hopes. While some colleges may need to spend more on their faculties, others ought to consider using this money to lower tuition instead.

Features Icon
show comments
  • MFinn

    It may be that at least some of this increase is owing to the need to build up women’s programs in response to the requirements of Title IX. I believe the numbers of men and women participants have to be equal, or close to equal. The alternative is to eliminate some men’s sports, as has been done with wrestling in a number of schools.

  • TheCynical1

    I suggest: follow the money.

    It’s one thing to finance athletics by diverting scarce taxpayer funds and student tuition fees away from academics, and indeed, the right balance should be debated.

    But the issue is not the same to the extent that athletics is self-sustaining. Enormous sums are raised from athletics boosters, corporate sponsors, sales of TV and licensing rights, ticket sales, etc. Most or all of such revenue would not exist but for the existence of athletics itself.

    • Curious Mayhem

      That’s largely a myth. College athletic programs are money-losers for all but a handful of very large schools. It’s one of the big three categories of exploding spending that have driven the explosion in tuition.

      The other two categories are the explosion in gold-plated, resort-quality facilities (abetted by large alumni donations that pay capital but not operating costs) and, of course, the explosion in nonacademic staff not doing teaching or research.

      • TheCynical1

        Nice job with the strawman. Never asserted the myth that all college athletics is 100% self-sustaining.

        I don’t know to what extent college athletics is self-sustaining; in that regard, I offered no numbers and made no particular claim. I did generally claim it is self-sustaining (to some extent) given the evident prominence of the cash-cow revenue sports. Hence, my point: the budgetary debate is not the same (to that extent) because those revenues would not otherwise go to academics anyway.

        Some trivia, for a few who may be interested —

        Just now, out of curiosity, I briefly looked into the numbers at my own alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, and I found that the athletics department commissioned a (pro bono) financing study by Bain and Company in fall 2011.

        I do not claim that Cal is a sports powerhouse, at least compared to a number of other schools. Yet the Bain study indicates that, in fiscal 2011, 85% of the Cal athletics budget was self-generated.

        Bain reports that football and men’s basketball are the profitable Cal sports; they throw off net surplus revenue, which subsidizes the other sports. Men’s golf, tennis, and rugby are around breakeven.

        Cal is currently committed to a total of 29 sports, which Bain says is “far above” the median of its “peer institutions”: this would seem to be part of the reason that less than 100% of the athletics budget has been self-sustaining.

        But going forward, the self-sustaining portion of the Cal athletics budget may come closer to 100% — out of sheer budgeting necessity. According to Bain, Cal’s “budgeted institutional
        support” for athletics will be on a “mandated declining path”: it was $12.1 million
        in 2010; it was $9.5 million in 2012; it was targeted to be $7.5 million
        in 2013; and it is aimed at the goal of $5 million in 2014.

  • Boritz

    “Critics note that a report on excessive athletic spending by a group
    representing college professors, who would likely want to get some of
    that money themselves, is somewhat self-serving.”

    In human affairs this is unavoidable. As Freud informed us all human endeavor, regardless of its overt appearance, is aimed at the acquisition of sex and power (for which money is a proxy). This is true everywhere and at all times. Except for Freud himself, of course, who reported this because he was a scientist seeking truth. Nod to Allan Bloom.

  • Fat_Man

    It’s all about the Benjamins.

    “College Athletes Union Could Put Billions at Stake” By Antonio Gonzalez on April 6, 2014 from Associated Press:

    * * *

    “Revenues derived from college athletics is greater than the aggregate revenues of the NBA and the NHL,” said Marc Edelman, an associate professor at City University of New York who specializes in sports and antitrust law. He also noted that Alabama’s athletic revenues last year, which totaled $143 million, exceeded those of all 30 NHL teams and 25 of the 30 NBA teams.

    “Texas is the largest athletic department, earning more than $165 million last year in revenue — with $109 million coming from football, according to Education Department data. The university netted $27 million after expenses.

    “Other major programs such as Florida ($129 million), Ohio State ($123 million), Michigan ($122 million), Southern California ($97 million) and Oregon ($81 million) also are grossing massive dollars.”

  • Jim__L

    All a college really needs for athletics is a few acres of empty field and someone to mow the lawns.

  • free_agent

    You quote, ‘“My hypothesis, and it’s not yet fully proven, is that these are mostly
    schools that are very tuition-dependent, and they’re spending more on
    sports to recruit more students,” Ms. Thornton said. “But I think it’s

    That seems to be an odd statement. If spending on sports actually does attract students, then it’s hardly unexpected that colleges will … spend on sports to attract students.

    The underlying problem is that students don’t consume college like we wish they would. In particular, they are willing to acquire a lot of debt in order to attend colleges which they enjoy attending, which seems to include majors that are interesting (but often not saleable in the job market), light workloads, lots of partying, nice dorms, and well-appointed athletic facilities. As long as the students are the decision-makers of the college “sale”, they will get what they want.

    The European universities seem to avoid this problem by being government-funded, so the choices the students have are what the government thinks they ought to be able to get.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service