College athletics haven't made a great deal of sense in a couple of generations.
It sure looks like the situation is about to get worse before it gets better.
The marriage of athletics and academics has always been a shaky one in our universities. In the olden days there was something quaint about having a college team in a variety of sports, just like what took place in high school.
Then someone, someone figured out that there was money to be made. That led to big stadiums in some cases, national publicity, media attention. Better yet, the players didn't have to be paid, at least legally. The college picked up the costs of their education, period. Well, OK, there always have been problems with boosters and their $50 handshakes, but that was always tough to prevent. But for years and years, it wasn't a bad deal. The students would get an education, the university would essentially hire them to work 20-odd hours a week in return. That wasn't a great trade for the biggest stars, but for 99 percent of the student-athletes it worked out fine.
But the stakes seem to be increasing by the day. College sports seemed to start embracing marketing when Don Canham, he of the 100,000-seat stadium at Michigan, took over in the late Sixties. That's a lot of seats to sell ... so why not try to sell them, week in and week out. Other schools saw the cash involved and wanted to play too. They all got better at the process. Been in a college bookstore lately? Not many books.
And then the television coverage blew up. In the quaint old days, there were about two college football games on every Saturday. Now there are five games on at noon on Saturday, and often one on Tuesday nights. Tuesday night football? Kind of tough not to miss classes for that road trip, which by the way keep getting longer and longer.
Naturally, we all didn't stop to look at the big picture. As in, why are colleges in the athletics business, with nine-figure budgets? How far away is that from the mission statement of a university? At the big schools, we've entered a world where offensive coordinators can earn a million dollars a year. You may have realized that no one ever paid to see an offensive coordinator do anything.
Some of these colleges aren't too good at making the financial numbers work. My newspaper ran a series this week on the University at Buffalo, which would like to become a larger force in athletics. Revenues for UB in 2013 were listed at $28.7 million, while expenses were $28.6 million. That would seem to be close to breaking even, except that $22 million of revenues comes from subsidies from the university. Most schools lose money on athletics overall. Alabama, one of the major exceptions, made $34 million last year - more than UB's entire budget.
Most of the colleges believe that athletics is something like advertising for the institution, attracting students and connecting with alumni. Is it worth it? If the numbers keep adding up like this, someone might ask about that eventually. But that person probably won't be in the athletic department.
Meanwhile, the players have been fighting back a bit. They have seen the enormous revenues generated by their efforts. They've also seen their jerseys with their names sold at the bookstore and on line, and seen their image in video games. So athletes headed to court; some of them filed to form a union at Northwestern; others took part in a class action suit over the video games. The schools cling to the public line that some sort of system embracing the amateur concept is needed, even though amateurism was shown years ago to be a way of keeping money away from those who earned it.
After some frantic realignment, we've gotten down to five major conferences - especially in football. There could be more shifting in the future, as four 16-team conferences would be a neat package for football. But in the meantime, the big conferences already received permission from the NCAA to make up some of their own rules. Think it's tough for the UBs to compete now?
We're clearly headed toward something new. Maybe the big conferences will simply call student-athletes employees at some point, and treat them accordingly. Perhaps those schools will have their own playoff system in football and men's basketball, leaving the others out. (So long for those cute upsets at the start of "March Madness.") Maybe those other schools will go back to the relatively old model, forming a second tier where a college scholarship is enough incentive to attract some "second-level" players.
I'm sure it's going to be an ugly process along the way. We can only hope that the ends, in the form of a better system, justify the means.
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