SI Vault
Pat Ryan
February 01, 1971
After a decade of high living, college football faces a serious financial squeeze. Costs are still rising, but revenues approach a ceiling. For all but the richest teams austerity measures lie ahead
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February 01, 1971

A Grim Run To Fiscal Daylight

After a decade of high living, college football faces a serious financial squeeze. Costs are still rising, but revenues approach a ceiling. For all but the richest teams austerity measures lie ahead

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It is a time for accounting. Like business executives throughout the land, the trustees of college sport have been poring over their graphs, those craggy profiles of the financial scene. The picture they see is troubling. In the past decade athletic budgets have increased 108% (only 35% of which can be attributed to the cost-of-living rise). Some schools are now spending more than $3 million annually to field sports teams. Two-thirds of college athletic programs are operating in the red. In some major conferences as many as six members spend more for sports than they earn from them.

If statistics confuse you, if you thumb through the financial pages of the daily newspaper only to get to Peanuts, consider these specific areas of crisis:

Item 1: Forty-two colleges have dropped intercollegiate football because of inflated costs in the last 10 years. The State University of Buffalo joined the list just three weeks ago. Toward the end, with the handwriting plain on the bursar's wall, Buffalo Coach Bob Deming was fighting to save his program by buying at a discount from a sporting goods firm that was going out of business. He even changed to a cheaper type of laundry marker.

Item 2: The University of Kansas student senate voted last week to give no money from student fees to the school's major sports in 1971-72. The athletic department had been getting $180,000 annually. To try to recoup the funds, Athletic Director Wade Stinson plans to raise student season-ticket prices from $5 to $18 in football and from $4 to $15.50 in basketball, gambling that student attendance at games will not drop too drastically.

Item 3: The Big Ten, which long has had frosty relations with professional football (until recently it barred pro talent scouts from press boxes), is now actively courting professional team owners in an effort to get exhibition games booked into college stadiums. The University of Minnesota is after the Vikings, Northwestern wants the Bears, Michigan the Lions and Ohio State would probably settle for any old Super Bowl candidate with some regional appeal. Just this month it was announced that Notre Dame has made a match between the Bears and the Cleveland Browns at South Bend, for Aug. 28. Depending on the deal struck, a single pro football game might add as much as $200,000 to a college's athletic bank account.

Thus the colleges are scrambling for any cash around. Ohio State has led the country in football attendance in 19 of the last 20 years, but filling its stadium to the parapets does not leave OSU wallowing in profit. "The pinch is there, and we just have to face up to it," says Buckeye Athletic Director J. Ed Weaver.

In the '60s college football managed to stay generally abreast of escalating costs by upping ticket prices and cashing in on television. But now expenses are racing ahead of revenue. A detailed NCAA study of finances that has just been made public shows that football revenue increased by 12% in 1968 and 1969 but football expenses increased 19%. And athletic directors see no ready way to solve the problem. Many claim their ticket prices cannot be raised any more, which means their stadiums cannot be exploited further—they can only seat so many fans. Some major football schools have expanded their grandstands three times in the last decade. To make additions now would entail cantilevering the structure or massive excavating to build downward. The cost would be prohibitive. For example, Ohio State discovered that enclosing the open end of its stadium would cost more than the stadium itself did when it was built in 1922.

Football's savior in the '60s was television, but it now seems most unlikely that TV money will be increasing. Indeed, the opposite may be true when the networks bid on a new contract in 1972. Last week ABC, which currently televises college football, said it may not be interested in renewing the contract under the present terms. "The NCAA will have to lower its price demand or become more lenient in the selection of games to be televised," ABC Sports Vice-President Chuck Howard declared. "And maybe the NCAA will have to do both for us to buy the package again." ABC pays $12.1 million per season for the college games. For the year 1968, says the network, it absorbed a $1.8 million net loss on the venture.

Athletic departments once could rely on the university regents, alumni contributions and student funds to shore up their finances, but such donations are drying up—in part because of the economic climate, in part because of alumni disaffection with many college attitudes. Bob Deming saw gifts to his Buffalo team plummet from $74,000 to $1,500 in one year. Increasing numbers of universities are on very tight budgets, with some of them shutting down whole departments, such as engineering and dental schools. In these circumstances athletic deficits are becoming hard to justify. Yet 400 of the 655 NCAA-member colleges operate their sports programs in the red.

If, as the NCAA survey shows, only one-third of football's inflation is due to the cost-of-living rise, what accounts for the other two-thirds? It has been explained by Oregon State Athletic Director Jim Barratt as "keeping up with the Joneses." He says, "If our major opponent hires another football assistant coach, we try to match them. If our major opponent has more football scholarships than we have, we try to catch up. If our major opponent has an athletic dormitory, we get out the hammer and nails. If our major opponent shops for artificial turf, we start organizing a fund-raising campaign. This goes on and on. If we don't work through the NCAA for a solution of limitations, many of our coaches will be out selling insurance within five years."

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