College sports vs. academics: A losing game

Published: Saturday, Feb. 23 2013 9:00 a.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — Attending a college football game has become a beloved American ritual that isn't likely to go away anytime soon. But U.S. students struggling with college costs might feel less like cheering if they knew how much they really pay for college athletic programs, and what doesn't get funded as a result.

A recent study shows that between 2005 and 2010, spending by college athletic departments rose more than twice as fast as academic spending on a per-student basis. And, colleges spent three to six times as much on athletes as on other students, according to a report by the Delta Cost Project at the nonprofit American Institute for Research.

The group analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Education and from USA Today Sports' College Athletics Finances Database to reach its conclusions.

Expensive traditions

Findings showed that the oft-stated axiom that college sports pay for themselves is untrue, except at about six national powerhouse schools with famous football programs. Athletic programs at most colleges and universities are heavily subsidized by student fees, and by institutional funds that could otherwise be used to support academic programs.

In the six highest-profile football conferences, spending per athlete exceeded $100,000 in 2010, the report showed. As spending on athletics climbed, so did tuition for students at four-year public universities — by an average of 38 percent between 2005 and 2010. Meanwhile, state and local funding support for higher education inched up just 2 percent during the same period.

The disparity in funding for academics and athletics during the recession was the main finding of the report, said its author, Donna Desrochers.

"In all of the divisions we looked at, the amount of money being provided as a subsidy to athletic programs continued to increase, even when institutions were cutting back on academic funding," she said.

Those subsidies were made up of student fees, institutional funds and state-appropriated higher education funds, Desrochers said.

Winners and losers

Elite sports programs with lucrative network television contracts have the smallest subsidies. It's the schools trying to keep up with them in lower divisions that tend to rely most heavily on subsidies, because their programs don't have the revenues to support their athletic programs.

Desrochers' research showed that strong, winning athletics programs can benefit their schools, particularly if they have a championship football team.

"It brings great visibility, but the effects are not long-lasting," she said. "In terms of donations, those are coming into the athletic department, and are not benefiting the university itself."

The few powerhouse schools where athletic budgets top $70 million got the majority of their revenue from ticket sales, contributions, payments for television agreements, and participation in bowl games and tournaments. However, at more than seven out of eight of Division I schools, athletic programs still cost more than they brought in and were subsidized, often heavily, by student fees and state and institutional funds. Those subsidies are the largest and fastest-growing source of athletic-program revenue for lower-tier schools.

Counting costs

USA Today’s college athletics finances database, on which Desrochers' report is based, is a response to calls for greater transparency in reporting the true cost of college athletics. It showed that at University of Michigan, a Big Ten powerhouse, only 0.2 percent of athletic funding came from subsidies. Subsidies at most schools are much higher.

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