BILLION-DOLLAR BALL: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football
And I’ll remember it all for years.
That night is the football season opener for the University of Notre Dame, and I’ll be in South Bend, Ind., as my team lines up against the Texas Longhorns. I’m a Notre Dame graduate, season ticket holder and intransigent Fighting Irish fan. Notre Dame victories affirm what is right with the world; losses wreck my mood for weeks. A Notre Dame priest officiated my wedding. I teach a journalism class for Notre Dame’s Washington program. My 2-year-old can sing the “Victory March.” By Irish standards, I’m a casual fan.
All of which makes Gilbert M. Gaul’s “Billion-Dollar Ball” a hard and challenging book, but one that I hope college football diehards will join me in reading. Gaul, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post, forces us to confront what major college football has become. When we cheer for our schools and our teams, we’re also supporting a powerful and autonomous entertainment business that monetizes every aspect of the game, an operation that is not only divorced from the mission of higher education but that often undermines it.
Gaul, who has previously investigated nonprofit finances and the agriculture industry, scours the financial statements that universities submit annually to the NCAA and visits top-tier college football programs the way fans might road-trip to games. The result is not a book about touchdowns or concussions. It’s about money.
At the University of Texas at Austin, home of the Longhorns, Gaul sits down with the legendary DeLoss Dodds, under whose 33-year leadership the school’s athletic department budget ballooned from $4.5 million to $170 million. A big chunk of that increase came in the past decade, Gaul reports, when the school added thousands of stadium seats (including premium spots), television fees doubled, and royalties, licensing fees and advertising revenue grew nearly fivefold. “If somebody told me we’d be at $170 million in our budget,” Dodds tells Gaul, “we would have checked them in somewhere.”
Texas sets the bar, but other schools are not far below it. In 1999, Gaul writes, the 10 largest collegiate football programs brought in $229 million in revenue. By 2012, the same schools reported revenue of $762 million. “Profit margins had ballooned to hedge-fund levels,” Gaul writes. Overwhelmingly, the cash is reinvested in athletic programs. As a Texas sports official put it, “We eat what we kill.”
For alumni, fandom is wrapped up in nostalgia for Saturday afternoons in the student section. But students have long ceased to be the focus of the college football machinery, with athletic departments pumping wealthy fans and alums for every dollar. One ingenious innovation is “seat donations” — making particular ticket purchases contingent on financial gifts to the university. Depending on the seat, these fees can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands. In 2012, University of Georgia fans paid $22 million not for football tickets but for the right to buy football tickets. At the University of Michigan, seat donations bring in $20 million per season. At the University of Alabama, it’s nearly $30 million. Cloaked as charitable donations supporting the schools’ educational missions, they are tax-deductible. “What part of watching Georgia play Florida is educational?” Gaul asks one assistant athletic director. The reply: “Eighty percent of it, according to the IRS.”
That’s just one tax break the game enjoys. “Congress has effectively decreed that college football is exempt from paying taxes on billions in seat donations, television broadcast rights, bowl-game payments, and corporate sponsorships,” Gaul writes. “At the same time, no one on the Hill seems able or willing to acknowledge the role that these tax breaks have played in unleashing a tsunami of spending that has transformed once-modest state universities into sports entertainment factories.”
The chief executives of these enterprises are not university presidents but head coaches, who earn many times their bosses’ salaries and are often the highest-earning public employees in their states. Today, 75 college football head coaches make $1 million or more per year, Gaul writes, and five earn beyond $5 million. Alabama coach Nick Saban takes in nearly $7 million annually; the school’s chancellor calls him the “best financial investment this university has ever made.” Yes, when it comes to coaching salaries, university officials are quick to discuss the return on investment; in other arenas, they revert to the language of nonprofits, education and charity.
“Coaches who consistently win are sometimes paid less than you might imagine,” Gaul notes. “Conversely, coaches with mediocre records are paid far more than they probably should get.” He cites former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who signed a six-year, $12 million deal in 2004. After a promising start to the 2005 season, Weis quickly received an extension for four more years, with millions in guarantees. Notre Dame had succumbed to “magical thinking,” Gaul explains. But the magic dissipated, and Weis was fired in 2009 after going 16-22 in his final three seasons. Because of his contract, he received between $17 million and $19 million after leaving, essentially getting paid by Notre Dame not to coach at Notre Dame.
The Irish could afford it. But smaller schools fall into similar traps, wildly overpaying for coaches and facilities, hoping to join the elites. In recent years, Gaul notes, schools such as Florida Atlantic and Western Kentucky doubled their head coaching salaries. Many small colleges lose millions each year on football, paying for it out of general revenue and higher student fees — money, Gaul points out, “that might otherwise be used for building a new lab or lowering tuition.” He cites Eastern Michigan, which according to one study lost as much as $20 million per year on football and other sports.
The University of Kansas Jayhawks are a basketball powerhouse and football basketcase, but Gaul stops in Lawrence to reveal the extremes to which schools go to keep athletes academically eligible to play. Athletic departments even employ “class checkers” (or, in a wonderful euphemism of college athletics, “varsity ambassadors”) to make sure players actually go to their classes. They stand outside designated lecture halls, waiting for athletes to sign in and enter the classroom, and they report back to school officials. Gaul spends time with Ken Baldwin, a 61-year-old Vietnam vet who has logged 10,000 miles on the Kansas campus as a checker. Once they sign in with him, though, some athletes try to sneak out of the classroom through another door. “They will come in one and want to go out the other,” Baldwin said. “They always try.”
When universities recruit high school or junior-college athletes with weak transcripts and class records, they sell the kids on their “academic support centers.” The University of Oregon boasts the Jaqua Academic Center — the Taj Mahal of academic services, Gaul calls it — a lavish three-story, 40,000-square-foot, $42 million facility financed by Nike founder and Oregon alumnus Phil Knight. It is equipped with tutors, ADHD specialists, life-skills advisers, psychologists and other staffers, as well as plenty of laptops on loan. Meanwhile, Gaul notes, the university’s top students toil in the Robert D. Clark Honors College, a Depression-era structure with little air conditioning. Those students typically receive a $5,000 grant, one-tenth of the value of a football scholarship. Such a contrast makes “a mockery of the university’s purpose,” Gaul writes. “Schools are rewarding the wrong students.”
Universities are quick to remind critics that football subsidizes smaller sports. But Gaul notes that the schools with the biggest athletic budgets often field fewer total varsity athletes than smaller institutions with reduced sports budgets. In 2012, for example, Princeton University had more varsity athletes than UT-Austin, despite a budget one-eighth as large and a far smaller student body. And Gaul explains how schools use women’s rowing programs — cheap, accessible, the antithesis of football — to even out the gender disparity in the Title IX era. “Anytime I looked at a report for one of the big football powers,” Gaul writes, “I inevitably found it also sponsored a large women’s rowing program.” Of course, the financial disparity endures: Gaul estimates that head football coaches are paid about $30,000 per player; women’s rowing coaches receive $1,000.
Every few years, college presidents, politicians or NCAA officials make noise about reforming the system. But the allure of television deals, corporate advertising and premium ticketing is too strong for the top football programs to introduce significant changes, Gaul concludes, and legislators know that “you never won an election by punishing your flagship university.” As one athletic director told him, “Politicians like to slobber all over football coaches and make fools of themselves.” And although the Obama administration has proposed eliminating the tax deduction for seat donations, Gaul is not optimistic. “I am betting that history holds,” he writes.
Speaking of history, Gaul makes occasional missteps that fans will flag. Alabama and Penn State played in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, not 1980. Auburn did not “thrash” the Crimson Tide in 2013; the Iron Bowl was decided on a miracle 109-yard runback as time expired. And for the love of God, it’s the University of Notre Dame, not “Notre Dame University.”
“Billion-Dollar Ball” commits a more serious penalty. Gaul interviews college presidents, athletic directors, coaches, tutors, professors — but virtually no players or recent players. Why not talk to people who can offer insights from the classroom and the field, and who can describe what life is like after eligibility runs out? A conversation with the student-athletes who sought to unionize at Northwestern University would have been especially instructive.
No surprise, Gaul is dismissive of the argument that college players should receive payment beyond their scholarships. He calls it “the players-as-victims narrative.” The idea would make sense, he says, only “if you accepted that the sprawling financial model of college football was not broken or absurd.”
Gaul is not kicking off the debate over the impact and purpose of big-time sports in American universities. But his book skillfully chronicles and quantifies the more mercenary aspects of the game that many fans have long avoided or that we explain away with appeals to tradition. My school is different, we say. They all are.
Tradition is tough to give up, especially when there’s a home opener under the lights. But Gaul’s book makes it harder to cheer.
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