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John Underwood
September 10, 1973
John McKay of USC attacks critics of football's mounting costs, arguing that the same can be said of academics and that the game usually supports an entire athletic program
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September 10, 1973

Common Cents And Dollars

John McKay of USC attacks critics of football's mounting costs, arguing that the same can be said of academics and that the game usually supports an entire athletic program

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We are assuming that the University of Texas football team will be so good it will win all its games and the national championship this fall (see cover). We can be sure (no assumption necessary) that the football team will make a lot of money, enough to finance the university's entire athletic program with thousands of dollars to spare. We are assuming that the Southern California Trojans, the defending national champions, will again be a joy to see and a Rose Bowl envoy. We can be sure that they will be responsible for a river of cash enriching the school. At Alabama, the as-usual assumption is that the team will rule the Southeastern Conference and take in another big bowl game; the surety is that it will make so much money they will have to bale it to get it to the bank. And so it will go, down the line with the best and most marketable teams.

Not everyone will be tickled pink with these fiscal triumphs, of course. Some will just blush. The matter of how big a business college football should be is an issue the game has wrestled with most of its adult life. Even prosperity is no guarantee against uneasiness. One prominent private school minimizes its considerable football success by sticking the athletic department with such phantom charges as practice field fees and library rentals to tone down the grand figures.

The breast-beating by academicians and the customary deceits and self-delusions of the loosely knit membership of the NCAA is, though tiresome, never completely out of vogue. Like a low-grade virus, there persists an element that cannot face up to the reality that major college football is not amateur sport. That there are no surprises when the roll is called for the first day of practice. That these are not pickup but handpicked teams, being paid with an education to serve their school in the most meaningful way they can.

But the argument here is not with the failure to define the college game accurately, but with the fallacies in financing it. The "spiraling" costs of football against the return on the investment. The dilemma, for some, of having to face what seems a perpetual inequality of competition. For every Alabama there's a little bit of Vanderbilt. For every booming Big Eight there's a puffing Mid-American Conference.

What brings these issues back into focus just now is a decision reached in August to subdivide the NCAA from two divisions (major and small colleges) into three. It was a sensible move, long overdue. The realignment was said to be for "competitive and legislative purposes," but it is pronounced "economics." Requirements—scholarship numbers, recruiting limits, etc.—and goals presumably will separate one from another.

The top division now includes 126 "major college" teams, but that number embraces the Marshalls as well as the Michigans, the Temples as well as the Tennessees. The number could drop quickly when guidelines are settled on. This division, the one we are concerned with here, will be expected to compete as equals for the top prizes: bowl games, national attention (and TV money), and the simple, hackle-raising gratification of being all-gloriously No. 1. In terms of goals alone they are worthwhile, but they have the double edge of being lucrative. It is a game for high rollers.

And those who are already in but with their toenails barely over the line will raise once more the familiar doubts: How can we afford it? Where is it taking us? And is it really worth the trip?

Despite the caviling and bellyaches, and an occasional dropout (Fordham, Santa Barbara, Buffalo, et al.), there are more schools playing at the "major" level than ever. Business, in fact, has been good; attendance and revenues are at alltime peaks. Nearly all schools finance their athletic programs with football money, and the programs are expensive.

When Bear Bryant returned to Alabama in 1958 the athletic budget was less than $300,000 and the line at the bottom of the sheet was as red as the team's jerseys. Alabama had won four games in three years. The revenue for last year was $2.6 million, and the profits $103,253, all from football. Bryant estimates that the program has provided millions of dollars for stadium additions, athletic offices, a field house, a dormitory and sizable contributions to nonathletic departments.

Any cursory diagnosis of finances across the whole of college football would appear to show an unalterable pattern of rich getting richer. Tennessee finances a mammoth $2.8 million sports program, and winds up with an excess of $313,000. Vanderbilt, its atonic neighbor, spends little and profits less. Poor attendance and the absence of television exposure limit the surplus to $61,000, not nearly enough to cover accumulated building debts.

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