According to R. Scott Kretchmar, a Penn State professor of exercise and sport sciences, it’s all but impossible for university presidents to ramp down spending on the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, even as they confront deficits.
“Presidents are obligated to raise money, and it’s the football and basketball events that bring the big donors and trustees in,” said Kretchmar, who served as Penn State’s faculty athletic representative to the NCAA for 10 years. “There’s virtually nothing else at the university that has the cache and excitement that big-time sports does. Presidents are saying, ‘I can’t go down that road of scaling back big-time sports.’ Unilateral disarmament is nothing that will fly.”
Some hope that the four-team college football playoff that was approved this week will bail out athletic departments in distress. A playoff could generate as much as $500 million in new revenue, according to industry insiders. That could mean an additional $2-3 million apiece for the 120 schools in the NCAA’s most prestigious football division, the Football Bowl Subdivision.
But if past is prelude, the newfound playoff money will only increase the cost of competing and widen the gulf between college sports’ “haves and have-nots,” Kretchmar predicted.
“Every cash cow that has come down the line that I have seen has been a temporary stop-gap,” Kretchmar said. “A playoff system is not going to be a panacea in any sense of the word. It will help balance the books of schools in the red, but with the escalation of salaries and facilities, it’s a black hole.”
Where to go from here?
So what’s the remedy for college sports’ spending compulsion?
The Knight Commission, a group of university presidents, trustees and former athletes who advocate for reform in college sports, offered a road map in a 2010 report, “Restoring the Balance: Dollars, Values and the Future of College Sports.” In it, the panel recommended the NCAA require colleges to publish the true cost of their athletic programs in comparable, complete terms, reflecting not only revenue and expenses but also the often-hidden debt service on facilities and subsidies from their universities’ general funds.
It also proposed that the NCAA cap the number of “non-coaching” jobs on certain teams — an expense that has ballooned in football, for example, with the addition of directors of football recruiting, operations, player development and strength-and-conditioning coaches for every position. And it recommended the NCAA reduce the number of football scholarships allowed by at least 10 from the current 85.
To date, none of those recommendations has gained traction.
“The people who could and should be responsible for fixing what almost certainly is going to be a train wreck are either unwilling or unable to do it,” Nichols said. “Unless you assume that television money is a bottomless pit — and there are no limits to the amount of money that television networks will invest — there is going to be a day of reckoning.”
That leaves two options for substantive change — both of them political and neither particularly palatable.
One: Persuade Congress to grant an antitrust exemption that would permit the NCAA to cap spending — whether on coaches’ salaries, scholarship costs or recruiting.
Two: Wait until the headlong rush for more money becomes so nakedly transparent that the Internal Revenue Service declares college sports a for-profit enterprise and revokes its tax-exempt status.
That’s a doomsday scenario but one Kirwan believes is plausible.
“Absolutely,” he said. “We’re moving further and further from the stated purpose of intercollegiate athletics. It has just become a big business.
“Maybe it sounds like we’re crying wolf. But sometimes the wolf is really at the door. And it will be if we continue with this madness.”