College Football Blitz
With six schools now fielding Division 1 Bowl Subdivision teams, Florida has become a major battleground in the college football arms race. But does it pay to play?
A lot on the line: Young programs like FAU’s may only get discounts on their equipment and apparel from companies like Nike, while established Bowl Subdivision programs may get millions in free goods. [Photo: JC Ridley]
Some young programs generate income by accepting money to play in so-called “slaughter bowl” or “body bag” games against major conference teams looking for an easy win. FAU’s football team, playing seven of 12 games away from home, will net $750,000 from “guarantees” this season, fully a quarter of the team’s $3-million annual cost.
While four of six Bowl Subdivision football programs in Florida generate a profit, UF is the only Florida school among about 25 nationally whose football program contributes enough to put the school’s overall athletic budget in the black. “I’m still not comfortable with how much athletics has,” says UF President Bernie Machen. “But at least I can tell you there’s no money going to athletics that could otherwise be utilized to support academics.”
That’s little consolation for UF Professor Jack Davis, a historian, disheartened knowing that assistant coaches make five times more money than professors and “to see the money going to the stadium when 30 faculty in the history department share one printer.” The faculty count in the history department is down about 20% — a result of budget cuts and a hiring freeze in UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Can you imagine the outcry if the coaching staff were down 20%?” Davis asks. “The Gator Nation would never let it happen.”
Davis, who teaches a popular course on the history of sports, isn’t opposed to intercollegiate athletics but says, “When you make athletics the vehicle of school spirit, you end up sidelining academics.”
Playing home games in a stadium 10 miles from campus hasn’t hurt the University of South Florida Bulls, who were ranked No.5 nationally in early October. USF’s football program made a profit of more than $2 million last year. [Photo: J. Meric]
There are other questions about what the schools will realize from all the time and effort they pour into football. Research shows that major sport success can drive up admission application numbers, but all Florida universities, including those without football, have seen growth in applications and rising quality of students — simply because of the state’s growing population and limited slots.
Evidence that success at sports improves fund raising overall is mixed at best. Nationally, only 25% of donors to athletics also give to academics, a figure that holds true at UF as well. The university ranks fourth in the nation in donations to athletics, but 83rd in the ranks of overall alumni giving.
Both Machen and Castor question whether up-and-coming schools might serve themselves better by focusing more on academics instead of stadium construction. Castor points out that USF has grown into a top-10 team while playing in Raymond James Stadium, which is 10 miles from campus.
Machen also acknowledges that football’s tailgating traditions contribute to students abusing alcohol — a problem he’s been battling for his entire tenure. Indeed, at UCF’s first home game, open containers were abundant on the mall, and several students sported the T-shirt slogan, “Win or Lose, Knights Still Booze.”
*Graduation success rate isn’t the same as graduation rate. The former adjusts the rate to account for players transferring in and also those in good academic standing transferring out. Schools say it’s a better indicator of academic performance. The federally tracked graduation rate, which examines only the percentage of freshmen who graduate within six years, is usually lower.
Source: NCAA for 2005-06, the most recent study available
Football backers answer the concerns in several ways. Even without a Boise State-like windfall, a team that does modestly well can realize enough revenue from football to cover the cost of low- and no-revenue sports such as tennis and volleyball. That’s especially true in Florida, where state law allows collegiate teams to keep the sales tax on tickets to fund women’s sports. The ticket surcharge alone amounted to $930,000 at Florida State in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2006, equal to a tenth of the cost of women’s sports — or more than enough alone to fund women’s golf and tennis.
A very few universities can even point to money that sports programs have generated for academics. UF’s Athletic Association, for example, donated $6 million this fall to the university to support several academic programs threatened by budget cuts; the Athletic Association has transferred $40 million to the academic enterprise since 1990. FSU’s library got a $250,000 donation from the team’s 2006 Orange Bowl appearance.