I ran across an interesting article the other day about a retiring Congressman from Virginia – Rep. Jim Moran, Jr., D-Va. His father, Jim Moran, Sr., was a professional football player for Boston in the 1930s, and the congressman played at the college level in the 1960s. As his swan song in Congress, Rep. Moran introduced legislation (which presumably has no chance of succeeding in the upcoming session) to have a federal commission review “the interaction of athletics and academics” at the college level.
Many people who are avid college football fans figure that football is the one sport that not only pays for itself (perhaps supplemented by men’s basketball), but also pays the cost of other athletic teams whose scholarships enable many deserving students to attend college. Scholarships for the Women’s Volleyball Team, for example, could not exist based on the revenues that Women’s Volleyball brings in; they balance the books at most major and many minor colleges, thanks to the revenues of big-ticket sports like football and men’s basketball. In any case, that’s what we are led to believe by many sports enthusiasts. But not so, says Congressman Moran.
Quoting here from Congressman Moran’s Facebook page (which was rated “True” after a thorough review by “Politifact”), “We have a system now where in 40 states, the highest-paid public employee is the state university’s head football or basketball coach, and yet only 20 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) have athletic departments with revenue exceeding expenses.” And yes, South Carolina is among those 40 states; Steve Spurrier’s salary exceeds that of any other state employee, literally including brain surgeons at the Medical University of South Carolina. As Rep. Massey pointed out to me in a social media exchange, it is somewhat misleading to categorize coaches as “state employees,” since most of their salaries are not paid from taxpayer dollars. The supposition, though, is that football revenues take care of all of that. Actually, they don’t – at least if you look not only at football and men’s basketball programs, but at college athletic departments as a whole.
Here are some figures from an April (2014) NCAA study on Division I athletic departments. A total of 20 athletics programs in the FBS reported positive net revenues for the 2013 fiscal year, i.e., of the 123 FBS schools, only 20 generated enough funding to pay for their athletic programs. The rest had to rely on general revenue, including taxpayer dollars and student tuition. The only two individual sports at FBS schools that were net positive were football and men’s basketball. Of the 20 schools that made money, the median profit was $8.4 million – a sizeable sum. But of the 103 schools that lost money, the median deficit was $14.9 million, an even larger figure. Individual schools were not identified in the study, so it’s not clear whether either South Carolina or Clemson were among those 20 making a profit from their athletic teams.
According to the report, all athletic departments for non-FBS schools operate at a deficit. This means that a total of 20 out of not 123 FBS schools, but out of all 1083 NCAA schools, in the end bring money into their college or university; the other 1063 athletic departments cost their schools money.
I enjoy college football, and am looking forward to watching next week’s National Championship game (Go, Ducks!). But still, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that these events are cost-free to the taxpayer, nor to the vast majority of tuition-paying students. Enjoy the spectacle of college football, basketball, and (yes) women’s volleyball. Remember, though, it’s not just the ticket buyers who pay for the game.