CLEMSON, S.C. — The cranes dot the campus like rigs in a fresh oil field, the drone and clanking of heavy machinery so common the clamor of construction has almost become white noise to those who live year-round in this small college town nestled in the rural foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
At the east end of Clemson’s campus, there’s a $212 million residential village under construction that will include dormitories, dining halls, a bookstore and a fitness center. A few hundred yards away, there’s a new $30 million innovation center with banks of touchscreen monitors, a 3-D printer room and a virtual reality room. And on the west end of campus — just past the stadium they call Death Valley — there’s a new $55 million football headquarters that will double as a recruiting tool thanks to its one-of-a-kind players’ village featuring a miniature golf course, a movie theater, bowling lanes and a host of other amenities.
Clemson in 2016 is enjoying that rare combination of successes that drive dozens of America’s largest public universities to spend tens of millions of dollars on sports. Under Coach Dabo Swinney, a rise to national title contention on the football field has brought surging donations to the university, as well as a growth in applicants, without needing financial assistance from the university or money from students in a mandatory fee.
“Athletics have allowed Clemson to create a better identity,” Athletic Director Dan Radakovich said. “The success that Dabo’s had with our football program has allowed us to create some really positive momentum. . . . It’s created opportunities to really showcase our institution.”
“We’re a lucky institution. We’ve got a hot brand right now,” said Brian O’Rourke, Clemson vice president for development and alumni.
But to experts of the financial impact of sports on American universities, significant questions remain about the wisdom and reliability of the system Clemson is cashing in on. A raft of scholarly research is ambivalent on whether spending tens of millions of dollars on sports is a wise bet or a low-odds gamble.
“Sports can absolutely have a positive impact, but it’s a risky investment,” said Richard Vedder, director of Ohio University’s Center for College Affordability and Productivity. “To get those surging applications and donations, you have to win. And that can be expensive.”
Clemson’s athletic department is one of the few among the nearly 350 in Division I, the top tier of college sports, that does not need millions in student fees or university support to pay its bills. And as leaders at some of those schools weigh expensive proposed facilities upgrades to try to recruit better athletes, even some of their peers at schools with financially flush athletic departments question the wisdom of more spending on sports.
“I would caution against it,” Louisiana State President F. King Alexander said in a recent phone interview, when asked what his advice would be for a college considering ratcheting up athletics spending. “We’re in the process, many of my colleagues in the [Southeastern Conference] and I, of trying to figure out how to slow this spending machine down. . . . We just don’t know where this whole thing is going to end up.”
On the night of Jan. 9 — two days before Deshaun Watson and his teammates tried to upend Alabama in the College Football National Championship in Glendale, Ariz. — Clemson held a fundraising reception in nearby Scottsdale.
At Dominick’s Steakhouse, a high-end restaurant with rooftop dining near a pool, the university’s staff worked a crowd of top-level donors and wealthy alumni.
A few months later, a couple in attendance that night made the decision to join the million-dollar donor club, with a $2.5 million gift to Clemson, O’Rourke said of the donation, part of his department’s record year.
In fiscal 2016 (which ended July 1), Clemson raised more than $92 million in donations to the university. Back in 2010, that figure was $55.5 million. While O’Rourke acknowledged he can’t precisely break out how much money the university has raised because of football success, he thinks there’s a strong correlation between the Tigers’ ride to national title contention and his staff’s record returns.
“When you have a winning program, the Clemson family is more energized and willing to meet with you to talk about that endowed engineering chair,” O’Rourke said. “They’re excited because they’re hearing great things about their university from their friends, seeing great coverage from the media. . . . That good vibe, it [raises] the whole tide.”
Clemson’s fundraising success for the university — not just the athletic department — is rare in major college sports, according to most major studies of the correlation between sports success and donations to a university.
A 2008 study by economists at Princeton and Stanford found “statistically insignificant” impact of football or basketball success. In 2004, a review by Cornell economics professor Robert Frank of more than two decades of research on the issue arrived at a similar conclusion.
“If the overall net effect of athletic success on alumni giving is positive, it is likely to be small,” Frank wrote.
Even at other schools where successful athletic departments can drive fundraising to the university, the benefits beyond the athletic department are limited. Like Clemson’s, LSU’s athletics department is self-sufficient and even sends money back to the university: $10 million last year.
But sustaining that solvency means sustaining success on the football field. So while the Tigers’ football complex, built in 2006, is undergoing a renovation, the backlog of deferred maintenance projects elsewhere in the university has ballooned to more than $550 million as the state government has slashed higher education support.
In the basement of Middleton Library — in need of about $900,000 in waterproofing repairs — buckets sit under openings in the ceiling and swaths of historical archives are permanently kept under plastic tarps.
“Donors are reluctant to give for maintenance,” Alexander said. “They want something new. They want to put their name on it.”
As Clemson has risen to national title contention under Swinney, the school has enjoyed the other major benefit often cited by college sports advocates as a perk for public universities: increased applications from out-of-state students, coveted because they pay higher tuition rates than in-state students.
In 2010, Clemson received about 11,000 applications from outside South Carolina. By 2015, that figure has risen to about 16,000. In that time period, Clemson increased its enrollment, allowing in more out-of-state students, but did not crowd out in-state students in the process.
From 2010 to 2015, as Clemson increased its undergraduate enrollment from 15,500 to 18,000, the school maintained the proportion of South Carolina residents, at about 70 percent.
On the campuses of other large public universities with elite football programs, though, out-of-state students willing to pay more now outnumber in-state students. At the University of Alabama’s main campus in Tuscaloosa, Alabama residents have been outnumbered in every freshman class admitted since 2011.
This is where the college sports arms race intertwines with another major trend in American higher education: a reduction of state government support of public universities.
As Alabama state government has cut spending on higher education, Alabama admissions officers have focused on attracting more out-of-state students, and Coach Nick Saban’s dynasty undoubtedly has played a major role in luring thousands of students from across the country to pick Tuscaloosa.
“From the institution’s point of view, I understand why they’re doing it . . . but I think it should raise a lot of red flags for the direction higher education is moving in this country,” said Stephen Burd, education policy analyst for the think thank New America, who studied the issue for a 2015 report, “The Out-of-State Student Arms Race.”
“When you go for out-of-state students, you’re going for wealthy students. They’re not looking for the low-income students; they want the ones who can pay.”
Since taking over as Clemson’s athletic director in December 2012, Radakovich has succeeded in building a fundraising machine that has been able to leverage on-the-field success into unprecedented amounts of money for athletics.
Since 2014, Clemson’s annual athletic revenue has grown from $69 million to about $100 million. In that same time period, IPTAY (Clemson’s athletics booster foundation, named for the acronym I Pay Ten A Year) has pushed its annual revenue from $32.3 million to $56.8 million.
In an interview last month, Radakovich said if he ran a department dependent on student fees or millions from the university, he may not be as aggressive about spending on facilities upgrades as he has been at Clemson.
“It just really boils down to how big and how much of a reach a school wants to have through athletics,” Radakovich said. “Here, the institution says having a great athletics program and funding is just as important as having a great physics program.”
Under Radakovich, the cycle — leveraging football success into more money and then spending nearly all of it to maintain football success — shows no sign of abating.
“The big question for us,” Radakovich said, “is how do we get to the proverbial next level?”
In fiscal 2017 — which started in July and runs through next July — Clemson athletics and IPTAY are projected to earn a combined $145.8 million and spend $145.7 million. Just two years ago, both those figures were about $101 million.
“We’ve had a lot of success,” IPTAY CEO Davis Babb said, “but like everybody else, we’ve got a growing list of needs.”