Athletics programs put a huge financial burden on colleges. And it is the non-athlete students who often have to foot the bill
In defiance of the NCAA, California governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 206 into law last month, better known as the Fair Pay to Play Act. Backed by Bernie Sanders and NBA superstar LeBron James, the bill allows college athletes in the state to profit from their image and likeness.
The bill comes one year after the NCAA, the largest governing body for college sports in the United States, reportedly amassed $1.1bn in revenue. Most of this money comes from the mens basketball March Madness tournament, according to CNBC, and a large portion also comes from college football bowl games. Although the Fair Pay to Play Act would not force the NCAA to pay athletes for any of those tournament, it will allow them to do paid public appearances, sign endorsement deals, offer private lessons and sell their memorabilia.
The act is a sign of progress but it will only apply to a select few: while high-profile football and basketball players from successful programs are marketable, most student athletes are not famous enough to warrant endorsement deals or a market in signed memorabilia. However, when it comes to college athletics, there is a far larger issue that is being ignored: its actual price tag and who funds its existence.
The notion that all college sports teams across the United States are generating millions of dollars for their respective schools and every NCAA athlete is being exploited is unfounded. Except for some elite football and mens basketball programs, expenses tend to outstrip revenues, and the burden is largely placed on non-athletes, driving up the cost of their degrees.
The cost of college athletics varies greatly from school to school and oftentimes depends on which one of the three NCAA Divisions a school is in. The elite Division I teams (except for Ivy League schools) are allowed to offer full athletic scholarships to players, Division II teams primarily offer their athletes partial scholarships while Division III teams cannot offer athletic scholarships at all, according to Prep Scholar.
The NCAA reported in 2016 that the average Division I school lost $12.6m annually on athletics if they dont have a football team, and $14.4m if they do. In Division II, the annual loss per school as of 2014 was $5.1m if they had a football team and $4.1m if they did not. For Division III, football schools lost $3.1m on athletics while those without football experienced a $1.6m loss.
Largely, student fees and hiked tuition subsidize these costs at smaller private universities, although taxpayers contribute at state government-operated public colleges. Even so, a 2010 Washington Post report revealed that nine public colleges in Virginia charged each student more than $1,000 annually in fees to fund their athletic department.
The alternative to hiking fees is to cut sports teams entirely, which is exactly what Bacone College and Malone University have done in recent years.
Malone, a small private Christian school in Ohio with approximately 1,600 students, decided to cut the schools Division II football team to make additional funding available for academics. The schools official website reports they will save approximately $1m annually by cutting football. Recently, the school added cybersecurity and criminal and restorative justice programs.
Meanwhile, when Ferlin Clark became the president of Oklahomas Bacone College in 2018, he cut his schools NAIA (a smaller NCAA alternative) football and rodeo programs to help erase $2m in debt and redirect funds towards the classroom.
Clark, who did not reply to requests from the Guardian for this story, explained his rationale to KTUL in 2018. I think the core of it is we became a sports institute rather than an academic institution, and we had 16 athletic programs rather than 13 academic programs, so we needed to realign who we really are, he said.
Although financial woes forced Malone University and Bacone College to admit athletics drained resources, they are in the minority. At other schools like the University of Houston and UC Santa Cruz, students have voted in recent years in favor of increasing their own tuition fees to subsidize their athletic departments
Oftentimes, colleges mislead on the fiscal burden sports present because schools include subsidies to their athletic department as revenue on their financial reports. In 2018 USA Today Sports compiled financial reports from 230 public colleges athletic departments and in their explanation of the revenue column, they noted student fees, tuition and state funds were being counted. On financial reports, this makes it appear as though the athletic departments are self-sufficient or even making money for their respective schools when they are not.
Still, college sports are not going away anytime soon. In 2019, there were five new college football programs established and in 2020, there will be four more, none of which will be Division I, according to Next College Student Athlete.
Even though elite college athletes could soon be profiting from their efforts, there is no foreseeable legislation to help out the millions of non-athlete students caught in this unrelated yet far more prevalent issue.