Monday, May 19, 2008

NCAA Releases Report on Athletic Department Profitability

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week that the NCAA has released a report on the finances of college athletic departments. The report is notable because it is the first time the NCAA has broken out "allocated" revenue (money the department gets from the institution itself) from "generated" revenue (money that it gets from outside sources, such as ticket sales and private donations) in reporting on the profitability of athletics. Past NCAA reports as well as government data fail to make this crucial distinction, and this fuzzy accounting has obscured the true cost of college athletics.

When you don't count institutional subsidies as revenue, only 17 out of 300 Division I program (5%) were profitable during the 2004-2006 period that was the scope of the study. 16 of these programs were in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly, DI-A). Moreover, DI institutions' expenditures rose an average of 23%, outpacing the increase in revenue, which rose 16%.

Why is this important and what does this have to do with Title IX? The new report is important because it begins to dismantle the common misperception that college athletics can generate "profit" for the institution, which is to blame for the epidemic of profit-seeking that has unmoored college athletics from its educational mission. Among other problems the commercial mentality has caused (commodification of athletes, low graduation rates, etc.) it has also incited an arms race of spending on state of the art facilities and other amenities that are designed more to help recruiting than to contribute to a meaningful student-athlete experience.

To be sure, some of this spending trickles down to sports that do not operate in profit-seeking mode, a category that includes nearly all women's sports. The Chronicle gives some examples "state of the art facilities for sports that have no chance of recouping the costs of those structures" like softball, swimming, and soccer. This statement illustrates the problem with the commercial mentality of sport and why it is bad for women. The ability to "recoup costs" is inconsistent with not-for-profit, educationally sponsored athletics. This irrelevant consideration also results in a spending bias against sports that happen not to appeal to the public, which, unfortunately includes nearly all women's sports. The so-called profit sports still receive the lions share of the money. And the minority of funds that do wind up in "state of the art softball fields" are usually blamed as the sole source of economic strain that causes universities to cut teams, a burden borne largely by men's teams (but only because women are underrepresented in the first place). This situation creates backlash against Title IX and women's sports and alienates women's sports from its natural allies in men's sports like wrestling.

I have no optimism that colleges will change their paradigms out of concerns for the educational mission of sport. But rational administrators, confronted with the reality of the low likelihood of turning a profit, should think twice before entering into or sustaining a commercial mentality. Athletic departments need to accept their role in not-for-profit education, and spend accordingly --in a manner proportional to the value of sports to the students themselves, sacrificing "state of the art" in select sports in order to more equitably support a wider array of student-centered athletic opportunities.