Studies show big-time athletics don't impact academic donations
Posted: Tuesday September 14, 2004 11:43AM; Updated: Tuesday September 14, 2004 1:15PM
Step on campus for a big-time college football game this fall, something even a notch below Ohio State-Michigan, and you're likely to look around and leave convinced of three things:
Between the fannies parked in the seats and all the commercial touches, the college game is a sure-fire moneymaker.
A successful season is a good bet to open a floodgate of donations from alumni.
The notoriety of a winning team -- especially its TV and bowl-game appearances -- is destined to attract a larger, more talented pool of student applicants.
Well, sorry, you're wrong. We're all wrong. None of this stuff is apparently true.
We media types don't want to hear that the games we chronicle aren't the end-all. And yet, study after study through the years has seemingly shot down the myth about college sports being good business. Or being anything more than games.
No question, big-time sport has evolved into the entertainment division on many a campus over the last couple of decades. Only it seems the athletic programs are eating up the profits (see: $2 million-per-year coaching contracts and pricey facility upgrades). And the presumed indirect benefits of sports, such as the spike in alumni giving and an enlarged applicant pool, are by all indications minimal.
The latest study putting college sports in its place comes to us from Cornell University management and economics professor Robert Frank, courtesy of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Based on what a friend who teaches at Duke told him, Frank came to the job expecting to find that championship football or basketball teams reap handsome benefits.
Instead, Frank didn't find the dead-cinch lock. Rather, he found that the revenues needed to compete have escalated to the point where the average big-time athletic program runs in the red. And when success brings a spike in donations, the money is routinely earmarked for the athletic program -- not the general university fund.
None of this is juicy new stuff. Nor is it that surprising, since Frank relied on no original research, instead reviewing newspaper stories and other studies written on the subject dating back to 1981. What's important here, though, is that he's keeping the discussion and debate alive.
"Teams that play games on Saturday, half of them win and half of them lose no matter how much everybody spends,'' offered Frank, who was at one time the chief economist for the Civil Aeronautics Board. "The real finding is there is absolutely not a shred of evidence that if all major college athletic programs were to cut spending by, say, 25 percent or even 50 percent that there would be any reduction in the gains attributed to athletic programs -- financial, alumni donations. All of those gains would proceed on pace.''
Of course, fat chance of a cease-fire on athletic spending or unilateral disarmament. What you find are athletic directors hustling harder for a buck, increasingly pursuing commercial avenues to generate the money necessary to keep programs running. Rather than programs yanking back, you see those like Central Florida eagerly opening the checkbook so that they can try to play with the big boys.
George O'Leary, who lost a gig at Notre Dame because he fudged his resume, was hired at UCF after last season to a contract in excess of $700,000 -- about three times what his predecessor, Mike Kruczek, was paid. O'Leary walked into a new, $7 million athletic office complex, further lured by the promise of $250 million in athletic facility upgrades, including three new practice fields and an indoor practice facility.
Blowing off studies to the contrary, UCF President John C. Hitt believes a university's stock is enhanced by a successful athletic program, recently telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "If you want to be taken seriously as a major public institution, particularly in the Southeast, you also have to have a presence in Division I-A football. People expect to see that.''
Left unsaid is the risk of an embarrassing nightmare, should the high-profile program get caught up in scandal or a lengthy NCAA investigation. At least from a distance, UNLV may forever be linked to the shenanigans of its basketball program under Jerry Tarkanian. The Baptist-affiliated Baylor University now may be best known not for a solid academic reputation, but rather the alleged murder of one of its basketball players by a teammate, and a program run amok.
And while sports boosters may often be a university's most vocal supporters, they don't necessarily speak for all alums or always have the deepest pockets. That was true this spring, when fans of football coaching legend Vince Dooley threatened to protest his ouster as athletic director by withholding donations to the University of Georgia's athletic programs.
If so inclined, one could view the Dooley protest as wildly successful -- gifts to Georgia's athletic program declined from more than $14 million to less than $3 million. But at the same time, the university reported a record $77.8 million in total private donations, including a 32-percent spike to $55.3 million in academic pledges.
"I've been a university president now for about 20 years and I have never found any relationship between alumni giving to academic programs and the success of the athletic program,'' SMU president Gerald Turner said. "Most senior fundraisers understand that raising money for the academic program is not going to be affected by that. They may be able to build a bigger stadium or put new seats in the gym, but it is not going to put more endowed chairs in their faculty.''
Clearly, what we find ourselves with are two separate, almost polar opposite universes -- academia vs. the major-college entertainment venture. And neither really has much to do with the other.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.