Interim NCAA President Jim Isch may be a little too quick to dismiss growing deficits in college athletic programs as primarily a result of the nation’s slumping economy.
There are other ways to interpret a newly released report that shows just 14 of 120 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision schools made money from the athletics programs in fiscal year 2009.
The number of programs in the black was down from 25 the year before. From 2008 to 2009, the median subsidy paid by the universities to support their athletic programs rose from around $8 million to more than $10 million.
The increased subsidies were needed to make up for slower revenue growth and ballooning athletic expenses. Growth in ticket sales and the all-important media contracts slowed to 6 percent from the previous year’s 17 percent. At the same time, athletic expenses rose by 5.5 percent in 2008 and another 11 percent in 2009.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Isch specifically rejected the idea that the fact that so few college athletics programs were in the black had anything to do with “runaway spending” in those programs. To support that contention, he noted the report’s finding that athletics expenditures as a percentage of universities’ total budgets has remained fairly constant at about 5 percent since 2004.
We don’t know about all 120 universities covered in this report, but these figures don’t ring true when it comes to Kansas University. Because of state budget cuts in fiscal year 2009, KU had to cut about $43 million from its budget. If the university’s athletics subsidies were rising during that time, how could the percentage of the university’s budget going to athletics remain constant?
The bigger question is, perhaps: Was the university having to trim even more from its academic programs in order to cover larger-than-expected deficits in its athletic programs?
In an NCAA news story, Isch ducked responsibility for rising costs, saying that how institutions choose to invest in athletics is their decision, not the NCAA’s. “It continues to be all about an institution’s determination of the value athletics adds to overall operation,” he said.
That’s another good question. “What is the value athletics adds to the overall operation of KU or other universities?” They certainly have value, but how valuable are they? How much money should be diverted from academic programs to subsidize athletic programs that are operating in the red?
If growth in revenue from ticket sales and media contracts is slowing down, maybe it’s an indication that the “value” of college athletic programs is leveling off. Perhaps the investment universities are making in those programs should do the same.