Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 17, 2013

Almighty dollars continue to reign in college athletics

By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD —  There’s a saying, “If you let a camel’s nose in under your tent, the rest of it will follow.”

That holds true, even if the camel is wearing an ingenious disguise.

A study released this week by the American Institutes for Research showed that universities in the top tier of the NCAA, the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), spent on average $92,000 per athlete in 2010.

An Associated Press education writer, Justin Pope, is on top of that story and provided that fact and much more in a story timed to coincide with the NCAA’s annual convention in Texas.

The FBS average cost per athlete is almost seven times what the average FBS institution spent per student on academics.

That data can get a little tricky — institutional financial aid available to non-athletes is not included as “academic spending,” for instance — though the study uses federal statistics that universities must file using precise guidelines, Pope reports.

The average for the Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference and four other major conferences has now passed the threshhold of $100,000 per athlete annually, about six to 12 times the amount they’re spending per student on academics, Pope wrote.

In the Southeastern Conference, the study noted, median athletic spending was nearly $164,000 per athlete in 2010, more than 12 times the $13,390 that SEC schools spent per student for academic expenses.

Every head football coach in the SEC makes $2 million or more. Alabama’s Nick Saban earned $5.32 million in 2012, Pope reported. Tennessee just hired Butch Jones at more than $3 million annually, the AP story stated. The Vols felt it necessary to "keep up with the Joneses."

We can’t have Coach hitting the recruiting trail in bargain-basement clothes, now, can we?

It didn’t help the Volunteers’ athletic department from a public relations standpoint that it recently discontinued an annual $6 million contribution it had been forwarding to the “other” part of the Knoxville university.

There are “a few dozen or so” institutions, Pope wrote, that turn a profit on their athletic programs. The study indicated the top half of FBS athletic departments, on average, “get by on a modest university subsidy” of somewhere between $3 million and $6 million.

I’d like a modest subsidy in that range.

Schools in the bottom half of the FBS, though, give annual subsidies of $11 million to $14 million from their budgets to cover athletics costs.

That’s real money, and it comes from the wallets of students or parents or, still to a degree at public institutions, "state money" — which, I am reminded every April 15, ultimately comes from taxpayers.

Some administrations have wearied of this athletics subsidy to the point of taking drastic action. The University of Maryland did not try to hide the fact that one big reason for its jump to the Big Ten Conference was its hope that the league payouts will help it halt “multi-million dollar annual losses in its athletic program,” Pope wrote.

Note, also, that this study used 2010 data, before most of the conference realignments kicked in.

To compete effectively in the major sports the Big 12, to use a convenient example, takes more money for scholarships and coaches’ salaries, and a lot more money for travel than the Big East or the old Atlantic 10.

The explosion of program assistants in athletics is yet another contributing cause of this spending splurge.

“How many sport video analysts do you really need?” the president of Western Michigan University, Dr. John Dunn, said in Pope’s story.

“While the NCAA wants to avoid being overly intrusive, they have never had a problem saying there should be x number of coaches and x number of scholarships awarded,” Dunn said. “Why not also govern how many ancillary personnel you can have?”

These days, in order to “be competitive,” every football or basketball team seems to need a specialist who can chop up game video and edit together sequences that will show how their next opponent employs zone defenses, for instance.

This week West Virginia announced the hiring of a cornerbacks coach for the Mountaineers. A team uses between two and four cornerbacks at any one time, and only when it’s on defense or special teams.

Hold on. I’m not picking on WVU. Virginia Tech has a coach for the guards and center. That’s three men, on offense. Marshall has a four-man basketball coaching staff for a men’s team that puts five players on the floor.

The University of Virginia athletic department, according to its website, employs its own sports psychologist and a manager of “strategic ticketing.”

If kept unchecked, the current trend of escalating spending is bound to percolate down from the major-conference schools to the FCS, Division II and III and to the NAIA.

Where will it stop? That’s where the camel comes in.

Wanting to be competitive is a natural instinct. That leads to pressure to increase departmental spending on facilities, scholarships, salaries and size of the athletic staff. All to keep a competitive edge against the other guys, you understand.

The nursing department can find some other batch of money to upgrade its behind-the-times patient monitoring demonstration equipment. Yeah, sure.

The desire to "excel" in athletics, at great cost, is the costume that people put on the camel. And before anyone realizes it, the camel is in your tent, munching on money.

Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist who worked for almost 20 years in college administration. Contact him at tbone@bdtonline.com.