Between 2005 and 2010, spending by college athletic departments rose more than twice as fast as academic spending on a per-student basis, according to a new report by USA Today. An analysis of federal and school data found that public universities competing in NCAA Division I sports spend up to six times more per athlete than they spend to educate students. In 2010, the most recent year of available data, per-athlete spending at schools in each of the six highest-profile football conferences topped $100,000.
Meanwhile, tuition at four-year public universities increased an average of 38 percent, while state and local funding rose just 2 percent.
A 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 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 revenue for lower-tier schools, USA Today’s analysis showed.
USA Today’s college athletics finances database is a response to calls for greater transparency in reporting the true cost of college athletics. It showed a wide range of spending subsidies for athletics at U.S. colleges and universities. University of Michigan, a Big Ten powerhouse, had only 0.2 percent of its athletic funding subsidized. But schools whose sports programs are less prominent depended on much higher subsidies from student fees and state and institutional funds.
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 from subsidies. Weber State University got 65 percent. The University of Utah got 24 percent of its athletic funding from subsidies. Information on Brigham Young University, a private school, was not made available.
Utah’s picture of uneven subsidies was reflected around the nation. University of California, Berkeley got 16 percent of its athletic budget from subsidies; California State-Fullerton got 71 percent. University of Alabama took 4 percent from subsidies, while Alabama State University required a subsidy of 76 percent.
“Because sports revenues so often fall short of meeting the needs of athletics programs, almost all programs must rely on allocations from general university funds, fees imposed on the entire student body, and state appropriations to meet funding gaps,” said a 2010 report by 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. “This is a significant concern at a time when economic woes have devastated state budgets and institutional endowments alike.”
The report noted that efforts to increase television market shares for high-profile sports “feeds the spending escalation because of the unfounded yet persistent belief that devoting more dollars to sports programs leads to greater athletic success and thus to greater revenues.”
The Knight Commission called for policies that require greater transparency in reporting the real cost of athletics programs, make academic values a priority, and treat college athletes as students first — not as professionals.
“If the business model of intercollegiate athletics persists in its current form, the considerable financial pressures and ever-increasing spending in today’s college sports system could lead to permanent and untenable competition between academics and athletics,” the Knight Commission report said. “More broadly, this model could lead to a loss of credibility, not just for intercollegiate sports but for higher education itself.”