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.
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.
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.
In the state of Utah, Utah Valley University got 89 percent of its athletic funding from subsidies — the second-highest subsidy amount among the 202 schools analyzed. Utah State University got 64 percent of its athletics budget from subsidies; Weber State University got 65 percent from subsidies; but the University of Utah got only 24 percent of its athletic funding from subsidies. Information on Brigham Young University, a private school, was not made available.
The picture of uneven subsidies in Utah was reflected around the nation. UCLA and other University of California athletics programs got 16 percent of their athletic budget from subsidies, but California State-Fullerton got 71 percent. The University of Alabama's athletics program got 4 percent of its revenues from subsidies, while Alabama State University athletics required a subsidy of 76 percent.
Eyes on the ball
The findings of the report did not surprise members of the Knight Commission, a panel from academic, athletic and journalism communities aimed at ensuring that intercollegiate sports programs uphold the educational missions of their colleges and universities.
Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said they have been tracking data on funding disparities between college athletics and academics for several years and have called for greater financial transparency in reporting the real cost of athletics programs, making academic values a priority, and treating college athletes as students first — not as professionals.
"Elite market leaders are generating record sums of money and putting those resources into coach's salaries, new facilities and other aspects of athletic enterprise," Perko said. "Schools that are unable to generate those huge sums keep increasing their reliance on institutional budgets. That has been the pattern over time, and there is no reason to believe that will stop unless there are changes in regulatory structure, or the model itself."
The Knight Commission was formed in 1989 in response to several public scandals in college sports during the 1980s. It has no binding authority over universities or their athletics programs, but its recommendations have influenced changes within the NCAA, such as rules requiring stronger academic standards for athletes and increased accountability for sports programs.
Though no itinerary has been outlined yet, the Knight Commission is promoting the concept of using a percentage of tournament revenues to provide financial incentives to schools that maintain an appropriate balance between athletic and academic spending, Perko said. Without such policy changes, credibility of college athletic programs — and higher education itself — is at stake, she added.
The current scenario — flat-lined academic spending and rampant spending for athletics at colleges and universities — is "a pattern that's not sustainable," Perko said, "nor is it appropriate when their core mission is education."