Editorial: Why KU should be more like K-State when it comes to athletics

Lawrence Journal-World editorials

It is probably not in the cards for Douglas Girod to ever be a very popular chancellor at the University of Kansas. Fate has put him in charge during a time when higher education faces enormous challenges, and the tasks of leadership require him to make some difficult and unpopular decisions.

Chances are, though, Girod will be a very consequential chancellor because of those decisions. He can go from consequential to transformative, if he asks even tougher questions. One of them ought to be: Why shouldn’t KU athletics be more like Kansas State athletics?

Now is the right time to ask those questions, as Girod gets ready to make his second hire of an athletic director in a period of less than three years. There are plenty of things we wouldn’t want to trade with K-State. There are some real messes in Manhattan. But even a quick look at the numbers shows Kansas State’s athletic department is winning in so many important ways compared to KU.

• K-State spent $79.7 million to run its athletic department in fiscal year 2020. KU spent $102.6 million. Why do schools in the same state and the same conference have such different spending levels? They are roughly the same size of athletic departments, with K-State having 361 student-athletes on scholarship and KU having 401. KU does have higher tuition — which athletic departments pay for their student-athletes — but not that much higher.

• K-State spent $16.9 million on salaries for athletic department administrators and support staff. KU spent $25.6 million. Let’s not overthink this. The Journal-World has reported on this difference for years, and KU has failed to produce answers for the differences. Now is the time for Girod to hold the department accountable. To be clear, these numbers don’t include coaching salaries. Those differences really aren’t that great: $17.7 million for KU and $15.9 million for K-State.

• K-State got zero dollars in direct financial support from the general university. KU got $1.3 million from the general university, despite severe budget challenges that are gripping the KU campus. Why can one school figure out how to live without such support and the other can’t?

• K-State finished fiscal year 2020 with athletic department revenues exceeding expenses by $6.6 million. KU finished the year with revenues exceeding expenses by just less than $15,000.

KU has some advantages over K-State, but they may be shrinking. KU fans may be surprised to learn K-State donors are nearing KU donors in terms of what they give the athletic department: $22.6 million for KU versus $20.3 million for K-State. KU’s national brand in basketball is still an advantage. It shows in ticket revenue. KU can charge a premium for basketball tickets. Even with poor football ticket sales, KU’s ticket revenue is $17.7 million versus $14.5 million for K-State.

But where KU’s advantage really shows is in sponsorships. Its national brand in basketball has landed it a much larger athletic apparel deal than K-State. The licensing category totals $11.3 million for KU versus $2.1 million for K-State. For the most part, that’s the Adidas money KU gets. (Yes, it does come with some headaches, but that’s a topic for another day.)

That’s a big difference, but a bigger difference is Kansas Athletics has a philosophy of spending nearly every dollar it gets while K-State does not. Despite that philosophy, KU has still fallen well short of accomplishing what it has wanted to, as the state of the football program can attest.

Now is the time to change the thinking. There are any number of ways to do it. Committing to get administrative salaries more in line would be a good start. An even better start would be for Girod to become a champion for sanity in the world of college athletics. Stand up to his counterparts in the Big 12 and elsewhere and speak passionately about ending a system that puts no meaningful limits on how much a university will spend on athletics. That’s a bad system in a day when universities like KU are having to cut academic programs to the bone.

KU is fortunate to have an athletic program that collects more than $100 million a year in revenue. But its neighbor is proving you don’t have to spend $100 million a year to run an athletic program. Think of the possibilities if KU can keep its revenue but lower its expenses. The result could be the athletic department providing money to directly help academics.

It will require Girod to be bold and to ruffle powerful feathers. But he already is having to make tough choices, which he deserves credit for doing. Just make one more and become transformative.

The slogan doesn’t fit with KU’s Adidas sponsorship, but it is wise nonetheless: Just do it.


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