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Sis, boom, bust: The high cost of college sports

It’s an uneasy time for many of America’s university campuses. In New York, the governor is proposing a 10 percent reduction in funding to higher education. In Michigan, it’s 15 percent. And in California, almost 16 percent. Last month, the president of the University of Nevada Las Vegas announced that the school may end up in the academic equivalent of bankruptcy. Tenured faculty could lose jobs, and entire departments may be closed.

But on many campuses, spending on intercollegiate athletics is growing, even though most sports programs run up millions of dollars a year in annual deficits. That means that while public universities are cutting in classrooms, your tuition dollars — and maybe even your tax dollars — are subsidizing big-time college sports. Here’s Need to Know correspondent Rick Karr.

Watch other segments from the episode.

  • thumb
    Main Street: Findlay, Ohio
    Need to Know travels to Ohio to assess how workers are faring after the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs over the past 35 years.
  • thumb
    Following the money: Tax breaks
    New CBO report echoes the findings of Need to Know's "A tale or four tax returns."
  • thumb
      Certifiably employable
    Rick Karr recently visited Seattle to look at a program designed to give the unemployed the skills they need to find jobs in one of the country’s fastest-growing industries.


  • E. Copen

    As an OU student, this disgusts me and seriously makes me consider transferring to another college. I came to OU for a quality, affordable education when I could have gone thousands of other places. If this does not change by the time I graduate, I will certainly be striking OU from my list of possible graduate college choices. I’ve never been to a sporting event and probably never will go. Why should I have to pay for someone else’s experience at a Division I school? Who is going to pay for my experience? Me and my $50,000 of undergraduate student loans. If OU wants to keep funding this college ego contest let THEM go to the bank and ask for a loan. This doesn’t have to be the case. Let’s fight back! I propose a full scale BOYCOTT of OU sporting events until we see a change. At the very least, we should be picketing outside the events to let people know the truth about who paid for the sports programs and who is going to keep paying for it: Future generations.

  • CTSPortsFan

    Only a handful of NCAA Division 1 (D1) athletic programs at public institutions run in the black. Almost all of them rely on University funds that come directly from a combination of student tuition and state tax dollars (see Change article). I come from Connecticut… you know… the state of Jim “Not A Dime!” Calhoun! According to the USA Today NCAA athletic finance database (based on annual required NCAA reports), in 2008 UConn spent over $5.6 million to compensate its athletic program which cost $58 million to run a year (or 10% of its budget) and Central Connecticut State University spent a whopping $8.5 million for a $11.2 million dollar program (or 76% of its athletic budget). When 76% of the costs to run a program are subsidized by diverting funds that can be used to teach all the students, then I ask: Who is responsible for this decision, who is watching this, and how many diverted education dollars is too much? The rise in the expense of athletics over academics was recently reported by the Knight Foundation in “Restoring the Balance”- a report that has gone unnoticed. I love sports as much as the next guy; but it is time to limit the amount of money paid by colleges on non-academic activities.

    The “Direct institutional support” illustrated in the USA Today reports represents a questionable use of state allocated and student tuition funds. The State has an expectation that State money will be spent on educational endevours and students have the impression that student tuition goes directly to academics that allow for more faculty, classes, and educational options. Whereas it is true, that schools have students fees that go towards athletics, it is not explicitly stated to students what portion of the fees go to D1 programs and it most certainly isn’t disclosed that tuition funds are being divert via this “direct administrative support” of athletics. (In effect, students are unwillingly paying twice to keep the D1 programs fiscally balanced).

    Therefore in an effort to (1) curb the amount of direct institutional support of D1 athletics and (2) provide transparency that allows students to see directly how much they are contributing to a University’s D1 program. I suggest everyone ask their state to pass a Bill that sets a percentage to which a University administration can divert funds to support their athletic programs and that this Bill also contain a requirement that informs students how much of their student fees, how much of their tuition, and how much of the State’s monetary allocation is being used to balance the athletic program budget.

    Jim Not A dime Calhoun yelling at a reporter if he was going to give a fraction of his salary back like all the other CT state employees:

    USA Today: NCAA Finance Database:

    Knight Foundation:

    Change article:

  • Joe Leslie ’66

    As an OU alum, I’m glad I haven’t donated any money to the school for several year!

    I’ve written them several times to express my disappointment at their cancelling the yearly Broadway
    musical that used to be a production of the Theatre Department at OU. How can a theatre department
    even PRETEND to prepare its students for a career if they don’t do at least one musical a year (as they
    did when I was a student there (1962-1966).

    Nevertheless, I’d ACCEPT that lack if it were necessary in order to fund other important courses of
    study like science, computer related studies, math, English, social studies, etc. But sacrifice ARTS
    in favor of SPORTS? Screw that, and screw OU!

    As this PBS show’s statistics prove, OU’s sports endeavors are economic failures. Hey! I’ve got an
    idea! How about cancelling some sports programs and using those wasted monies to fund the
    ECONOMICS Department at OU!

    Fat chance.

    Joe Leslie

  • Roberto Fernandez

    This is an exceptional critique of the state of higher education in the United States. The shallowness of the adminstrations in most of the universities in this country is mind boggleling. Without the stress of academic excellence rather the meaningless pursuit of the ego trip in college sports, we face a very serious probelm in trying to stay competitive in the developing global economies.

  • OU Alum 2008

    I’m sure the Athens Chamber of Commerce would LOVE a cut to D2. I’ll tell you what would happen. A lot of loyal alumni would turn their backs on the university. They would end their donations and probably visit Athens much less. I work in higher education admissions and the most common question that high school students ask me is “Do you have sports?”

    This piece makes it sound like OU doesn’t deserve to play the top teams in football and basketball. Yeah, ask Georgetown what they think about that. One thing that would really help the athletics department fund itself is the addition of at least one more “money” game per season in men’s basketball and football. This will require OU Athletic Director, Jim Schaus, to change his overall vision for the programs. He’s committed to scheduling games where Ohio is often favored to win. The schools with much larger athletic budgets (Ohio State, Kansas, etc.) will pay a big dollar amount (often six figures, occasionally seven figures) to smaller athletic budget schools (Ohio, LA Tech, etc.) to play one game at the larger school’s venue. Ohio football can’t do this without breaking contracts until the 2016 season, since the non-conference schedule through 2015 is already released. Men’s basketball can do this. The goal for the larger school is to get what’s supposed to be an easy win. The smaller school is supposed to lose, but occasionally wins. Ohio men’s basketball won at UNC in 2002 and at Maryland in 2007 in money games. Football won at Kentucky in 2004 and at Illinois in 2006. So when Ohio wins these sorts of games, not only does the athletic department take home a fat check, the win generates excitement among the fans which leads to some increased ticket sales and maybe donations. OU should also consider reconfiguring its strategy towards soliciting donations, both to the athletic department and the university.

    I’m not going to write it out here, but research what Toledo did with its ticket distribution when its football team played Ohio State at Cleveland Browns Stadium in 09. Toledo lost the game but took home a TON of money.

    The program failed to mention that OU’s athletic budget makes up less than 3% of Ohio University’s overall budget.

  • Mano560

    Excellent information which I suspect not too many know about what it takes to fund school sports. There is quite a difference between the shepherd’s love for the fleece and for the flock.

  • Scott

    I’m a former Ohio University employee who loves Ohio Athletics. I’m a football season ticket holder since 2005. I love that we’ve been able to hire great coaches like Frank Solich and John Groce who have helped their respective programs gain national exposure with some high profile wins over the years. Ohio Volleyball has been consistently ranked in the top 25 for several years now. Having said all of that, I am not in favor of the student body having to burden the responsibility of funding the athletics department. I agree with the assessment in the feature that the athletics department should do more fund raising and solicit donations from alumni. My son is a freshman at O.U. and my conversations with him back up the fact that the student body is not interested in Ohio athletics. His friends on campus attend very few games. All you have to do is look around the football stadium during a home football game to know that the community and student body doesn’t support it. There are very few games that have high attendance. The ones that do are due to the fact that the football program sold tickets at a discounted price or gave tickets away. Do you think Ohio State sells tickets at a discounted price or gives them away? I’m about to fall out of my chair laughing!

    I also have to disagree with the statement that scheduling one more “money game” for a $750,000 payout will take care of the budget issues when you’re looking at an 18 million dollar budget. I don’t think that’s the solution.

    If lessening the students’ burden for funding athletics means that I have to say goodbye to Frank Solich and the recent success of Ohio athletics programs, I’m willing to make that sacrifice in the name of academics and assuring that students can afford a university education.

  • Cgeorge_2010

    It really is sad that the average students aren’t eligible for most scholarships but the students who are good at sports can get a free ride. Some of these students don’t even do that well. I think a lot of our young people have been given this idea while growing up that if you are good in sports, you can get into a good college for free and then maybe the professional league will hire you and you can make millions. It is ridiculous that so much emphasis is put on sports and the average student suffers for it.

  • Alex_Bryant

    I just recently found out that our small, rural university nearly eliminated its pre-health program, while in the same semester gave the football coach an $11,000 raise! Our culture will suffer and our society is doomed to mediocrity in the face of such decision making.

  • Joe Bialek

    Can anyone draw a direct correlation between the money invested in college sports and the enhancement of a student’s intellect?

  • Amy Perko

    The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics provides straight-forward recommendations for financial reforms in our universities’ athletics programs in its report–Restoring the Balance: Dollars, Values and the Future of College Sports.

    One of the core recommendations is for NCAA rules to require greater transparency of athletics finances and the reporting of better measures to compare athletics spending to academic spending.

  • Anonymous

    Absolutely I can
    Whatever draws attention to a business or a University is a revenue enhancement.
    Every organization/entity requires money to be formed, money to perpetuate, and a continuing cash flow.
    WHATEVER attracts a person’s interest and re-focuses that interested person attention to a University is valuable.
    If you choose to not believe me and this explanation…PLEASE find someone you will respect and listen intently to what they explain as to the value of “marketing”.
    Every ongoing organization/entity requires a continual inflow of money…no different than the human body requires blood.
    Money is blood to a business…and yes, a University is a business. Any business not run in a fiscally responsible manner will fail and close……meaning that students and athletes alike will no longer have benefit and use of the closed/bankrupted University.
    The actual dollars a University takes in as income derived from athletics can be counted.
    The dollars that exist. but not possible to be accurately counted are those “attention-created” dollars.
    Logic and intelligence would dictate that a customer SHOULD buy a box of breakfast cereal based entirely on the ingredients, and most especially for the included healthy ingredients.
    WHAT is in a cereal should be the deciding factor…..logically.
    The picture of Tiger Woods, or some other athlete on a box of Wheaties should not logically affect customer choice…BUT IT DOES affect customer choice, and that has been proven time after time, with every type of citizen in every Country in the world.
    The athlete recognition can possibly draw a buyers attention initially, and then the customer may take the next logical step of reading on the box what is in the box…and decide to buy it. But that customer might not be “attracted” to that cereal box WITHOUT the athlete on the box front.
    Feel free to form an open a University that can operate without need for cash income other than tuition……….I wish you good luck.
    Until someone can figure a way completely around predictable and reliable human behavior, athletics will create income to Universities.
    Without enough income, your dream of a athletics-free University will fail and close.
    What you personally think about the value of athletics means nothing.
    You finishing University with a void of knowledge about everything….money wise…necessary to keep your University open, expanding, growing, reaching and maintaining financial security is frightening.
    Before wasting the mental effort to “dream about” what a University COULD BE/SHOULD BE, you should 1st spend the time to understand completely the realities that must exist…while you dream of an organization that can magically operate without “evil money” being needed.
    EVERY dollar that no longer comes into a University from athletics MUST be replaced with a matching dollar of tuition cost increase.
    Money doesn’t magically appear anywhere in the world…
    ALL money has a source.

  • Woland

    Murray Sperber wrote about this years ago. His writings, brought him into conflict with Indiana’s Bob Knight. Oh and by the way, as Sperber noted, even big programmes like UMich have had problems running an athletic department surplus.

  • woland

    It is, as Sperber noted, schools like OU and Ball State who really get whacked because, unlike at Indiana where basketball, at least in the past, and football drew enough support and ticket sales to subsidise, to some extent, other sports programmes, OU’s and BSU’s major sports programmes don’t always support themselves or other athletic programmes on campus. At schools like Ohio and BSU where basketball and football run hot and cold in terms of success and support, it is the students who end up subsidising athletics through student fees which “buy” every student a ticket.

  • Aaron

    If the purpose of your long-winded explanation was to suggest that revenue from athletics helps support the academic mission of the University, you should at least first show that athletics does generate revenue (in excess of expenses). You evidently did not watch the piece, despite your need to comment on it, but you could have used many other easy-to-find sources that would tell you this is not the case. Perhaps you thought the story was about the Ohio STATE University?

  • Intek_523

    Your explanation is flawed. Many colleges and universities can reply on the strength of their academic programs and research and do not need sports as a “marketing tool” to generate interest and income.

    For example, Ivy league schools are not know as football powerhouses (no desrespect intended). Yet, Harvard received over 30,000 applications for it’s class of 2014.
    I have no facts to support this, but I think that If Harvard discontinued it’s football program tomorrow, it would still receive that many applications for 2015.

  • Joe Bialek

    This letter is in response to the television presentation “Sis, boom, bust:
    The high cost of college sports” written by Betsy Rate.

    After watching this video I can think of no other way to say it; this
    absurdity really chaps my ass. When did college become the engine for
    subsidizing a professional sports career? Why isn’t the revenue received
    from these sporting events used to reduce the cost of tuition or books?
    Could it be used to recruit great professors from other universities? As a
    wise man once said “it’s all a matter of priorities.” Well, what are the
    priorities of today’s universities? How did they get so duped into
    believing that athletics was their fiscal savior?

    My own alma mater just agreed to a 10 year contract {worth about $350,000
    annually} with Caleb Porter — the University of Akron men’s soccer coach;
    that’s $3.5 million dollars going to one person and for what? To coach athletes
    to kick a soccer ball up and down the field to the delight of students who can’t
    recognize how they are being ripped off? UA also gave football coach Rob
    Ianello a five-year deal worth about $375,000 annually or almost $2 million
    dollars to coach a team that nobody wants to watch because they have no
    connection whatsoever with the students. It is the same situation today
    that it was then regardless of whether they played in the Rubber Bowl or now
    in Infocision Stadium.

    As a result of the lack of attendance at Infocision Stadium UA’s finances
    have sprung a leak. What is going to be used to plug the leak? Will it be a
    increase in tuition? Will it be layoffs or reduction of programs? Why is it that
    the students are always the one’s to get screwed? Who profits from all the
    brick and mortar projects besides the contractors? The time is long overdue
    to start “following the money”. Where is Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward
    when you need them? Stay tuned. Change is coming.

    Joe Bialek

    Bialek graduated from the University of Akron in 1989 with a Bachelor of
    Arts in Political Science and in 1992 with a Master of Arts in Public
    Administration. He resides in Cleveland.

  • Sgk1212

    If OU was winning like Ohio State is, money would be pouring in!! Do away with athletics and watch the alumni abandon the school in droves. Wake up! Just becasue your son doesn’t care for sports doesn’t mean nobody else does.

  • Scott

    Can’t believe you just posted that and showed your ignorance of Ohio University athletics. The basketball team knocked off a high ranked Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA tournament after winning the MAC tournament. The football team has made two trips to the MAC Championship game and been to two bowl games in the past few years. There’s your success! …And guess what? We’re still in this mess!

  • Taylor Evans

    I am disappointed to see you took the pro-athletics students out of the equation when compiling this documentary. I, as president of the undergraduate Sports Business Association at Ohio University, would love to tell you about the numerous avenues which Ohio Athletics has led our undergraduate and graduate students of numerous academic disciplines down through real world experience. It should also be noted that no student-athlete was interviewed (or at the very least included) in this documentary. When compiling an objective documentary, all sides involved should be questioned and considered.

    I would be glad to give you comments and interviews for a follow-up documentary. I can be reached by email at at any time. Countless students here at Ohio would gladly step forward to tell you the benefits we have reaped because of Ohio Athletics and the NCAA as a whole. There are two sides to every story and I believe as a credible television network, PBS should do their due diligence and obtain all facts before publicly releasing a documentary.

    Again, I am eager to be contacted by PBS. I would be more than honored to provide input on this and would be glad to help track down students from numerous disciplines for you to interview as well. There was great camera work in this documentary. I now hope you are willing to add in equally valuable insight.

  • OU Employee

    Why then are all departments at Ohio University having to cut back at least 10% of their annual budget, but the athletic department that went grossly over-budget last year is given more money?

  • Wallert

    Check this out, a video breaking it down for you a little bit more.

  • Doyzrus78

    And countless more agree with this program that we don’t want to subsidize sports programs and we would be happy to be in division II or even III if it means we can improve our education or services , for instance the horrible internet here on campus.

    You are correct stating the athletes were not questioned. But for this specific topic their input is not needed. This is about our money supporting something that does not benefit the student body. Soon you will see not many students are going to want to pay into your money hungry system. And the NCAA is the worst MONOPOLY to be a part of , they make money off of misguided schools like OU and off the backs of students. Another thing; something as mundane throwing a football does not deserve a full ride. If sports are the only thing that gets you into school, then you probably shouldn’t be here. Stop the privileged elitism.

  • Fnjsmp

    The video is well done and ought to be viewed by faculty senates at all of America’s colleges and universities. It offers no surprises for those that are familiar with the economics of big-time collegiate athletics. For the unfamiliar, Amy Perko, Executive Director of the Knight Commission, contributed a comment that refers readers to “Restoring the Balance: Dollars, Values and the Future of College Sports,” a commission report that provides recommendations for financial reforms for athletics programs. “One of the core recommendations is for NCAA rules to require greater transparency of athletics finances and the reporting of better measures to compare athletics spending to academic spending,” says Perko.

    The remarks in defense of the status quo by the Ohio University president and provost are to be expected from sitting academic officials who simply parrot the NCAA cartel’s party line to avoid confrontations with members of their governing boards, affluent boosters, alumni, fans, and local business owners. Few are willing to risk their job security. Their remarks stand in sharp contrast to those of Mason Welch Gross, the 16th President of Rutgers University, who said:

    “The college that has a sports program for any other reason than an educational reason is soon going to lose control of the program. If the college goes in for sports as a part of a program of public entertainment and public relations, then the public will dictate the kind of entertainment it wants. If the reason is fund-raising, then the fund-raisers and the potential donors will dictate the program. Whatever the reason may be, the college has lost control, including the control of those parts of its education policy which are related, such as admissions.”

    For more on counters to the often-repeated (and ill-founded) arguments in defense of commercialized collegiate athletics see Chapter 4 of Bill Dowling’s Confessions of a Spoilsport, Penn State Press (2007) and/or contact the Rutgers1000 at .

    If college and university administrators believe that students and their parents really want Div 1 athletics, then these students and parents should be willing to help offset the associated financial burden. It would be interesting to see the outcome of an optional-fee-based system as opposed to the current extortion-like system.

    Frank G. Splitt

  • Rich Pytel

    The University of Michigan Athletic Department did have a single year where there was a shortfall in its budget about a decade ago when Tom Goss was the AD, but that hasn’t been the case for some time now. Under the stewardship of Bill Martin and now David Brandon, Michigan built up a $35M reserve fund through FY 2011 (ends 30 June 2011) while providing enough revenue to run 27 sports without resorting to student fees.

    For information on Michigan’s most recent budget submission to the Board of Regents, go to:

    Obviously, Michigan’s situation is different than most smaller universities due to its size and access to higher revenues, primarily through television, ticket sales and alumni contributions–not to mention its affiliation with the Big Ten Conference.

    There is a way to relieve the athletic department revenue burden at schools like Ohio University that’s relatively simple–stage a Division 1-A college football championship and employ more equitable revenue sharing throughout the conferences within the division. The current BCS system funnels most of the $155.2M revenue it provides to only six conferences while the Mid America Conference (and other smaller conferences) make very little money from the current setup. A college football playoff is projected to make anywhere from $500 to $700M–this is the type of money that could go a long way to overcoming the revenue shortfalls that programs like Ohio University’s athletic programs suffer. For more information, go to

  • Adam

    Thank you NEED TO KNOW, excellent reporting.  I grew up in Athens, and attended OU through 1998. I worked for the university through my college years, and was very proud of this campus. However, growing up in Athens, you learn the toll the University places on the local schools and citizens of the county. OU has sucked the town dry, and increased the tax burden to the point that many cannot afford it. I remember when OU was one of the most beautiful campuses I had ever seen, everywhere you looked the buildings and grounds were beautifully maintained, classrooms were spotless, just unbelievable. I just visited the campus in 2010 and it is nothing like I remembered, the employees are disgruntled, lack of maintenance and grounds keeping is evident everywhere you look. I also remembered how good the food once was, all the staff were very proud state employees that made you feel like you were home, the food was cooked from scratch, and thank god there were no contractor companies running anything. The Administration has lost its way, and the President needs to go. I really don’t think any of them care about EDUCATION, the dedicated staff, or the students. I think all they care about is money and sports. I wish I could still say I am proud of my university, but I am not.  The students need to stand up and fight back, because the employees I think are afraid to speak out in fear they will loose their jobs.

  • Cliff Egle

    I just read the list of fees for my son’s first semester of college at the University of Central Arkansas and I am pissed. They charge $17 per semester hour ($289) to support their athletic program. Proof positive that athletic programs do not support themselves. I believe that the fees should be charged at the gate. Let the market decide if it wants a sport. I do not attend sporting events, and I am sick of paying for someone else’s entertainment. Further, why should my son, with a 29 ACT score have to pay outregous costs while some dimwit that can throw a ball gets a free ride? Further, the dimwit gets a shot a multi-million dollar career while my son is lucky to even find a job in this economic climate. This is an institution of higher learning, not a football training camp. Let the NFL, NCAA and any other sports organizations pay for their training and leave my tuition and tax dollars alone! Some numb-skull presented a bogus argument in his comment that branding is important to attract students. Well, UCA is not known for its athletic programs and does not have a problem with attracting students and teachers. Colleges are not like cereal boxes. A college education is not an impulse purchase. When you pay tens of thousands of dollars for an education, you do base your purchase on “what’s inside of the box.” If a picture of an athelete sways your college choice, then you obviously lack the requisite cognitive skills for earning a college degree. You should be working at McDonalds.

  • Frank N. Blunt

    That tried to answer the poster’s question but you mostly made an attempt to discuss the marketing concepts of branding and perceived value.  You also made an assertion of cereal marketing as being 100% true for all the people everywhere but that wouldn’t hold for those that are more concerned with actual content and reserve their critical faculties to individually judge for themselves; that kind of persuasion especially shouldn’t hold for citizens with a decent college education.  Another matter is the prevalence of debt financing that has been autonomously assumed by administrators.  No allusion to that problem and its causes but it’s very serious.  Peace and blessings.

  • Bet365 Sports

    Sports can manifest as the good pillar of education. Players must enjoy the low cost of training in order to keep their skills and talent more effective in the game.

  • Bet365 Sports

    Sports can manifest as the good pillar of education. Players must enjoy the low cost of training in order to keep their skills and talent more effective in the game.

  • Cosmic Ray

     I think this is a scandal. To think that a coach is being paid 50 or 100 times what a professor gets paid.
    At the colleges that are in big-time sports leagues, it seems that the primary reason for the school’s existence is not to educate students, but to play–and win–sports. Add in the fact that athletes are recruited with offers of cars, etc.– and professors are sometimes pressured to give special treatment to student athletes (I say this from personal experience).
    I think that alumni usually deserve the main blame for this state of affairs. They are the ones who want high-power, winning sports teams.