Big sports, big money

Weaning the athletics department off the general fund is not as easy as it sounds.

Michael Rietmulder

Jubilant fans stormed the field of TCF Bank Stadium after the Gophers football team ended its disappointing season on a high note, knocking off the Iowa Hawkeyes 27-24 Saturday.

With the season in the books, the attention of Gopher Nation âÄîI still canâÄôt use that term without smirking âÄî will be focused on the coaching search. In the coming weeks, the University of Minnesota will be playing “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” âÄî college football edition.

The next football coach will likely command a salary of upward of one million smackers, and once a deal is announced the Minnesota DailyâÄôs editorial pages will surely be filled with letters from disgruntled readers who watch coaches get rich while tuition costs increase and department budgets shrink.

As a tuition-paying student, their contempt resonates with me, though itâÄôs important to understand not all the blood will be on the hands of President Bob Bruininks and Athletics Director Joel Maturi. The problem of escalating athletics budgets is not institution specific âÄî itâÄôs a systemic problem.

According to a Knight Commission report released this summer, athletics spending among Football Bowl Subdivision universities (schools with big-time athletics programs, like this one) is significantly outpacing academic spending. The report found that between 2005 and 2008, athletics spending per athlete increased by 38 percent, while academic spending per student increased by less than 21 percent. In 2008, FBS schools spent on average $84,446 per athlete compared with $13,349 per student.

Even more staggering, based upon current trajectories of the top 10 athletics spenders, their average budgets will swell from $98 million in 2009 to $254 million in 2020.

Often drawing the ire of students, faculty and taxpayers is the fact that the University gives the athletics department millions of dollars in subsidies each year.

Between 2004 and 2009, the University has given the athletics department approximately $27 million in direct institutional support, according to a database compiled by USA Today. This money comes from student fees and the UniversityâÄôs general fund. It should be noted that these subsidies have decreased annually from $7.5 million during the 2004-05 school year to $3.4 million in 2008-09.

Maturi would be the first person to say his departmentâÄôs budget shortfalls are less than ideal. However, self-sustaining athletics departments are not the norm in college sports. Only select institutions, like the University of Iowa in the Big Ten, have programs which raise enough revenue to cover all of their expenses.

The Knight Commission has recommended reducing the number of football scholarships and sport-specific non-coaching personnel as a means of shrinking athletics expenditures among FBS schools. But the commission acknowledges that the NCAA is somewhat helpless in reigning in inflated coaches salaries without a federal anti-trust exemption.

A 2009 survey of university presidents found that many feel they cannot act unilaterally to combat the “arms race” in college athletics. “If you try to control the excesses, you get into an anti-trust threat,” one unnamed president was quoted as saying. “IâÄôm afraid the market drives everything.”

The lionâÄôs share of athletics expenditures go toward the revenue-producing sports: football and menâÄôs basketball. During fiscal year 2009, the University spent more than $14.3 million on football and menâÄôs basketball combined. However, the return on investment is substantial.

The UniversityâÄôs football and menâÄôs basketball teams generated nearly $39 million for the athletics department in 2009. This represents more than half of the departmentâÄôs $70.3 million budget. Without this money, the University would not be able to afford the 18 varsity sports that operate in the red. Fielding competitive teams, particularly in football, is important to keep fans dishing out their cash each week to spend a Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium.

“The fact of the matter is Bruininks knows, Joel Maturi knows, others know that football is the engine to every athletic program,” Maturi said at last monthâÄôs press conference announcing the firing of head coach Tim Brewster. “And our engine is sputtering, and we need to find a way to fix it, and weâÄôre committed to doing so.”

The trick is to fix the engine without letting the transmission deteriorate.

A 2008 study conducted by the WomenâÄôs Sports Foundation found that between 1995 and 2005, athletics expenditures among Division I universities saw average increases of $8.2 million annually. During this period, spending on football increased by $2.45 million per year, while funding for womenâÄôs teams (excluding basketball) increased by only $135,000 annually.

Understandably, universities are going to spend more on big money sports, but the experience of competing at the collegiate level is no less valuable for, say, a female golfer than a football player. In this area the University has performed commendably. (Note: In 2007, the University opened a $4.6 million boathouse for the womenâÄôs varsity and menâÄôs club rowing teams.)

The question looms: Is the UniversityâÄôs mission better served by investing another million dollars in the football team or its academic pursuits? For incoming president Eric Kaler, the answer should be obvious. As state funding decreases, a self-sustaining athletics department should become a priority.


Mike Rietmulder welcomes comments
at [email protected].