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Chapter 9: Conclusion

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Concerns about the expenses of college sports are nothing new, and the current economic crisis only exacerbates a long-term trend. The NCAA’s Presidential Task Force on the Future of Intercollegiate Athletics concluded in 2006 that while there was no “imminent financial crisis in intercollegiate athletics. ...[t]he rate of growth combined with the rapid rise in capital costs has the current system under stress.”

The rate of spending is a concern because of the risk it poses to athletics programs, universities, and student-athletes themselves. The success of major conferences and their institutions in the media marketplace may render second-tier conferences and their institutions invisible, destroying the investment such universities have made in “big-time” athletics. As for universities, the run-up in athletics costs comes at a time when other costs are rising faster than inflation in the broad economy and states are reducing appropriations for higher education. Thus, it is plausible to think that a regional university in any of the major conferences may find itself having to choose between funding an academic department and subsidizing athletics. And student-athletes, particularly in non-revenue sports, may be at risk of their teams being cut or funding reduced to meet other needs, such as those of revenue sports.

Second, the structure of intercollegiate athletics is changing rapidly. Intercollegiate athletics programs have become heavily dependent on revenue from media and other corporations with no vested interest in higher education. This already has led to tension over game scheduling and marketing presence at events, but it also creates an internal danger for athletics departments: As one official put it, “I just hope that ESPN and CBS are too big to fail.” If the economy takes another turn, or technology threatens traditional television and media corporations are not able to make good on their contract obligations, the effects in college sports would be seismic.

It is time for a serious examination of the structure of intercollegiate athletics to find ways to brake the runaway train of athletic expenses.

More immediately, there is a concern among athletic administrators that costs will continue to rise, but there are no more pots of gold to find. As University of Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi put it recently, major athletics programs may be running out of that “next somehow,” even as their parent institutions are reeling from an overarching funding dilemma. The future may not be about more revenue. University of Arizona athletics director Jim Livengood told ESPN.com recently, “The old adage of 'just make more money' through better development and fundraising won't help. The problems are too big to just be able to fix on the revenue side.”

Penn State’s athletics director Tim Curley, who currently oversees 29 intercollegiate sports, told the Knight Commission in 2009: “I believe the economic realities and conditions facing athletics will have a major impact on sponsorship [of teams] and participation in the years ahead. I remain concerned that, if adjustments are not made, we will see a reduction of both men and women's programs in the next three to five years” (Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, 2009). He warned that non-revenue men’s sports will be hardest hit and reduced to club or intramural status.

Moreover, on average, institutional subsidies to athletics are rising faster than educational subsidies for the student body. This means that colleges will have to expend a greater percentage on athletics than ever before.

These kinds of concerns are by no means exclusive to athletics. Colleges and universities across the country are under attack for an economic structure that contains few if any incentives to mitigate expenses, and instead rewards institutions for pursuing high-cost research and building programs. Tuition and fees have been rising more quickly than inflation while colleges have had difficulty providing metrics to demonstrate that they are meeting their students’ educational needs. And the expansion of universities in the face of declining state support has created the need to seek funds through corporate partnerships and other arrangements that have prompted ethical questions about the ability of institutions to conduct impartial academic inquiry.

As such, it is incumbent upon colleges and universities to make sure that they and their athletics programs are functioning efficiently to fulfill their missions. In terms of athletics, this means that it is time for a serious examination of the structure of intercollegiate athletics to find ways to brake the runaway train of athletic expenses.