The Great Lie of College Sports

This article originally appeared on the website of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

This week, my colleagues at USA Today published a database with the salaries of college football coaches from schools in the NCAA’s Bowl Subdivision, the highest level of competition.

In my years of covering sports, I learned that the response to news on player salaries is pretty evenly split between people who are outraged and people who are indifferent. Some folks will say “if they can earn that much money, good for them.” Others will indignantly ask “whatever happened to doing it for the love of the game?”

But the issue is much more complicated in college sports, because the majority of these coaches work for public universities. Their salaries are paid by taxpayers.

At a school like the University of Texas, coach Mack Brown’s $5.3 million annual salary may not seem out of line. The Longhorns athletic programs generate $150 million in revenue each year — the most of any school. Roughly $17 million of that is profit, which can be turned around to help fund academic programs at the school.

But it’s the great lie of college sports — that high profile programs generate income. The vast majority of them lose money and have to be subsidized, either through exorbitant student fees or, more often, with money pulled out of the school’s general coffers.

Of the 227 public schools that compete at the Division I level, only 22 have athletic programs that bring in more money than they spend.

Among the biggest money losers is the University of Connecticut, whose sports teams combined to lose $15 million last year. For years, Jim Calhoun, the head coach of their men’s basketball program resisted efforts to publicly disclose his salary, as is required under the state’s open records law. When a reporter asked him in 2009 whether it was appropriate to draw a $1.6 million salary while the state was being crushed by budget deficits, Calhoun launched into a tirade.

“Quite frankly, we bring in $12 million to the university, nothing to do with state funds,” Calhoun shouted. “We make $12 million a year for this university.”

While he was a fine basketball coach – winning three national championships during his 30-year career – he apparently never took Econ 101, where they teach you the difference between revenue and profit. The hoopsters might bring in $12 million a year, but they spend $14 million in the process. The difference is made up by taxpayers.

The quest for profitability is what has been driving the dizzying realignment of college conferences. Dozens of teams are jockeying for a slice of the big money generated by television contracts for three or four of the conferences. Those left on the outside in this game of musical chairs will find it increasingly difficult for their sports programs to break even.

In terms of profitability, the SUNY schools all rank near the bottom of the list. The University of Buffalo ran nearly $20 million in the red last year. Athletics programs at Binghamton, Albany, and Stony Brook also lost money last year, requiring between 75 and 85 percent of their budgets to be subsidized.

And this is why the salaries of college coaches merit disclosure and discussion.

There are significant taxpayer expenses being incurred by the SUNY schools’ ascension into top-tier college athletics. At the same time, some SUNY students are protesting cuts to their colleges’ programs and the increase in tuition costs. It’s fair to question if the cost of athletics programs reflect the appropriate priorities.

Analyze the data yourself: