Are big-time college sports worth it?

01/24/2014 9:05 PM

01/24/2014 9:06 PM

I was having a discussion with a friend the other day about the importance of college sports. I questioned whether the success or lack of success of a university’s teams mattered to the school’s ability to fulfill its academic mission.

My friend argued that, essentially, I was nuts. He said that athletics, particularly the major, audience-intensive programs of football and basketball, are important marketing tools for universities, both in attracting students and donations from wealthy alums.

The way he put it, it made sense. After all, would everyone know about Notre Dame if not for its football team? Academically, it is well-regarded, but that has not been the dominant source of its fame for nearly a century. (See Knute Rockne, George Gipp, Rudy.)

It turns out that the impact of athletics on alumni giving, for example, has been studied a lot.

I found a recent research paper by Malcolm Getz and John Siegfried, a couple of Vanderbilt economists. They looked at research over the past few decades. Here is what they concluded:

“A lot of anecdotes and marketing hype are devoted to the prospect that winning university sports teams stimulate private donations to the successful schools. Systematic empirical evidence generally supports the anecdotes, although the effects appear to be small, and result primarily from the appearance of football teams in post-season bowl games.”

They go on to say: “There are similar stories of individual universities attracting more applications following athletic achievements, although in this case, the empirical evidence is equivocal, and there appears to be little effect on the academic credentials of classes enrolled subsequent to the athletic achievements.”

So basically success in athletics leads to some bump in donations, but not a big bump, and there’s mixed data on whether schools get more applications or whether they get better students applying. There are exceptions to these findings, but over time, things find the mean. Temporary surges in enrollment or donations or whatever fade.

So what’s the point of big-time college athletics? Big money? Getz and Siegfried cited studies that show that most Football Bowl Subdivision (top level) athletic departments in 2007-2008 were running a deficit. One of the problems they point to is that -- unlike professional leagues -- colleges lack the controls to “avoid competitively spending themselves into poverty.” This is the arms race that gets talked about.

So if it’s not for the money, or to spur applications, or to attract better students, what is the point of building big college sports programs, primarily football and basketball?

Here’s my unsurprising theory:

I think that there are groups of alumni who are very passionate about their teams. I’m talking very passionate. They go to all the games or watch them on TV; they populate the online fans sites; they obsess over recruiting. They are very vocal when things aren’t going well for State U., and some of them sit on university boards, or in state legislatures, or belong to powerful alumni organizations. While their numbers as a percentage of all alums may not be large, they can make a lot of noise.

If they are UNC fans, they do not like losing to Duke. If they are N.C. State fans, they do not like losing to UNC.

I don’t discount the value of psychic benefits to fans.

But as straight-up business propositions, as marketing vehicles for universities, the research suggests big-time sports isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

There aren’t many university presidents or chancellors who would publicly hold their athletic programs up to objective analysis and ask: “Is this really worth it?” But someone should, because big-time programs are a distraction from the universities’ primary mission - fostering innovation, creating new knowledge and educating successive generations.

What do I mean by a distraction? UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt, like her predecessor, has been spending significant amounts of time dealing with the academic/athletic scandals at her university. Many other presidents find they need to keep one eye constantly trained on their athletic departments, lest they get unpleasant surprises.

And, they must ask themselves privately, what’s the big payoff here?

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