Student-athletes: Going on the endangered list?

So BYU is flirting with the Big East, Boise State may go anywhere, the SEC is adding teams that aren’t “Southeast” in any sense, and the Pac-12 is looking farther and farther inland. I’m still waiting for the University of Heidelberg to join the ACC.

The driving forces here are: football, TV, football, money, football, men’s basketball, money and football.

Then there’s Topic B in college sports: Whether to pay players a stipend or a little extra.

Not considered in these discussions: The existence of sports beyond football or men’s basketball. Even men’s basketball is hardly considered — it’s a factor in the ACC’s raids on the Big East but not much else. The current ESPN magazine has a stark claim on its cover: Superconferences will be very bad for college basketball. (Disclaimer: I do a good bit of freelance work for espnW.)

Football is unique among college sports, of course. For one thing, it’s difficult to have the marching band do a halftime show at a water polo game. (Surely Stanford’s band has tried.)

The two biggest considerations with football: It’s college sports’ biggest revenue-generator AND biggest expense sink. Check the numbers on college sports, and you’ll see that football is a gamble. From a financial point of view, schools can win big … or lose.

The “superconference” movement raises that stakes. Yes, there’s a lot of TV money on the table. But the expenses will creep up as well.

What the media have not noticed is that those expenses will be much worse for the nonrevenue sports. It’s one thing for Boise State to take its football team to South Florida for a Saturday football game. It’s another thing for Boise State to plan its conference travel for volleyball or softball. Midweek cross-country travel every week? That’ll be great for “student-athletes,” right? Especially the ones playing sports that don’t have professional futures.

ESPN’s story mentions the problem:

So it may be great for Syracuse’s football team to leave the poorly monetized Big East, but now its men’s basketball team has to fly once a week, if not more, to Miami and various spots in North Carolina to play. Its travel budget will balloon. Syracuse, like many schools in large conferences, will come to rely even more on football to provide for its other sports. The more money football doles out, the more power it wields.

Now suppose the “pay the players” movement gains momentum. Again, everything becomes more expensive.

Now suppose we have a downturn in a superconference’s TV revenue. It could happen. Bubbles burst.

We’d have athletic departments looking at red ink. What do you suppose will get cut?  Probably not the football teams.

The great blog has rounded up a few of the reasons for alarm, including George Dohrman’s thoughtful, thoroughly researched SI piece this week exploring a few options to pay players while making the whole operation viable. One option in that SI piece: Make a lot of the nonrevenue sports “club” rather than varsity.

In a way, the “club” idea brings sports back into the realm of normal college activity, and getting out from the NCAA’s umbrella is tempting. In another way, it’s brutally unfair to nonrevenue sports, particularly when other options are saner. And it means you’ll have Olympic athletes holding bake sales so they can take one flight to a national championship.

Already, nonrevenue sports’ spring seasons — a small attempt to give soccer players and company something beyond their absurdly short fall season — are under attack. For soccer players, this is particularly galling. They could lose their poorly publicized spring games, but they’re expected to leave their summer amateur teams in early August to get back to “school” before the dorms even open? That’s more cost-effective? Better for the players? How?

SI’s piece has a rather chilling quote in bold type: COLLEGE SPORTS IS FULL OF TEAMS THE MARKET DOESN’T SUPPORT, YET THEY GET FUNDED.

Before we leap into Ayn Rand’s America, let me make this counterargument: The value of college sports to a school goes far beyond tangible revenue. If we reduce college sports to NFL and NBA development leagues with everything else puttering around at the “club” level, what’s the point?

(Technically, because of Title IX and the SI piece’s suggestion that schools should just focus on strict proportionality so they’d be able to cut sports without violating Prongs 2 and 3, we’d have football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball and a 65-member women’s rowing team. But let’s not digress down that road just yet.)

Take a look at the 2010-11 standings for the Directors’ Cup (long associated with my former employer and frequent freelance client, USA TODAY) and the newer Capital One Cup. Look at these schools. Stanford. Cal. Notre Dame. Duke. North Carolina. Virginia. Northwestern. Michigan. Lots of good schools. (Yes, Duke gave me two degrees, but it’s still a good school.) Even a non-scholarship Ivy League school such as Princeton can check into the top 40 ahead of a lot of the schools that can fill their swimming pools with football money.

From the Greek academy to the Bay Area, sports have been part of student life. It’s a big selling point for a lot of schools. Hyperachievers like to hang out with hyperachievers.

Does “the market” support that? No more so or less so than it supports the marching band, the art museum, the library’s updated card catalog system or the people who clean up the statue of John Q. Schoolfounder when he’s TP’d after homecoming.

So let’s toss out a few ideas:

– Football conferences are simply different entities than basketball conferences, lacrosse conferences, soccer conferences and so forth. Let football conferences go national while the other sports stay regional.

– Figure out a way to trim a few athletes off those giant rowing teams without falling out of compliance with Title IX. Maybe put a few more of those athletes on the teams in, say, swimming, track and other sports that actually have millions of high school athletes from whom to choose.

– If football is going to be the rainmaker for the rest of the athletic department, fine. Beef up the minimum support given to other sports. Let it be the rainmaker.

– Ease up on additional financial aid for needy athletes. But don’t pretend it’s some problem that’s unique to athletes. I knew plenty of people who had trouble paying for a holiday flight home in school. The fourth-string tight end shares some problems with the band’s second-chair tuba player.

Whatever the solutions, the sports that don’t rake in money should be part of the discussion. And part of the schools.

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3 Responses to Student-athletes: Going on the endangered list?

  1. Pingback: The war on nonrevenue sports, ctd

  2. Manual Okun says:

    Streaming the games streaming should be simpler for us football nuts. You got a alternate way to do it?

  3. Pingback: Title IX-related questions

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