During a period of flat or declining academic budgets, university athletic enterprises are growing at a healthy clip in the NCAA’s Division I schools, according to a new database.
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, long a voice for reform in college sports, unveiled an extensive database Wednesday that shines a light on universities’ big spending on athletics – particularly football.
For example, while academic spending per student dropped 12 percent at UNC Chapel Hill from 2005 to 2011, athletic spending per athlete grew by 30 percent and football spending per player jumped 56 percent.
At N.C. State University during the same six-year period, per student spending on academics inched up 2 percent, while per athlete spending increased by 16 percent and football expenses jumped 85 percent.
Overall, UNC-CH spent $96,135 per athlete on athletics in 2011, less than the $100,319 per athlete at NCSU. But UNC spent more on football, at $144,747 per player, compared with NCSU’s $134,211.
UNC Charlotte saw a 2 percent decline in academic spending over the six-year period, while athletic spending per athlete increased 27 percent.
During that time, UNCC launched a football program, which kicked off its first season this fall. That was accomplished largely by an increase in student fees, which the students supported, said UNC Charlotte Chancellor Phil Dubois.
The North Carolina schools in the database were well below the nation’s football powerhouses in sports spending. In 2011, athletic spending per athlete topped $212,000 at third-ranked Auburn University, while second-ranked Ohio State spent nearly $381,000 per player on football.
“A clear pattern does emerge, and that is the pattern that athletic spending is rising rapidly while academic spending is stagnating,” said Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission.
In each subdivision in NCAA Division I, athletic spending per athlete rose at a faster rate than academic spending. The gap was biggest in the Football Bowl Subdivision and smallest among schools that do not have football programs. On average in the big FBS schools, academic spending grew by 3 percent, while athletic spending climbed 31 percent and football expenses rose 52 percent.
Much of the growth in sports spending coincided with increases in coaches’ salaries, the Knight Commission concluded. Among the five conferences with the largest budgets, median salaries jumped as much as 54 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over a six-year period.
“College athletics has the potential for so much good, but the current trajectory of spending is unsustainable,” said a statement by William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and co-chairman of the Knight Commission. “We already see levels of spending at some universities that require them to divert substantial resources from their core academic responsibilities.”
To cope with a hefty athletic department debt, Kirwan’s flagship campus at College Park dropped seven sports programs, including its swim teams, men’s tennis, men’s cross-country and indoor track. The university joined the Big Ten looking for better revenues.
The Knight Commission numbers come at a time when higher education is under increasing scrutiny for rising tuition and sometimes low productivity. The database provides a rare view of athletic spending at more than 220 Division I public universities. It was compiled from several sources, including NCAA financial reports available through USA Today and academic spending comparisons in the Delta Cost Project at the nonprofit American Institutes for Research.
The database does not include information from private universities, which are not compelled to release their data to the public. Among Atlantic Coast Conference schools in North Carolina, there are no data for Duke University or Wake Forest University.
Some questioned the value of comparing measures that calculate academic spending over thousands of students with spending spread across several hundred athletes. The Knight data do not show TV and ticket revenue, which goes to support spending increases in sports programs, said UNC Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham.
Cunningham, reached on the phone while traveling with the Tar Heel basketball team in Michigan, said he had not looked at the statistics in depth but cast doubt on their usefulness. The context of the data is important, he said; statistics can easily be used in “the story the Knight Commission is trying to create.”
‘Poor way ... to compare’
He said the academic spending numbers are dubious because they are not based on the university’s total budget, which is $2.5 billion.
“Football and basketball generate more money than they spend, yet we’re going to put in all the gross amount of the expense, including game day operations, which creates the revenue that pays for the other sports,” Cunningham said. “So comparing gross numbers to net numbers is a poor way to try to compare.”
Cunningham said it is useful, though, to see how UNC stacks up against others in sports spending.
“When I look at our peer institutions in those categories, I think we have some very reasonable expenses,” he added. “To me, that’s when you have at least a better chance of comparing apples to apples, when you compare an athletic expenditure to someone else’s athletic expenditure.”
The bottom line is dramatic growth in expense has been accompanied by growth in revenue, Cunningham said, “which funds the growth of opportunities for students to play intercollegiate athletics. I think that point shouldn’t be missed.”
Last month, the UNC Board of Trustees did not consider a proposed student athletic fee increase after students voiced their disapproval. The athletic department sought the fee hike to pay for higher travel expenses in the expanded ACC conference.
In the aftermath of scandals surrounding UNC’s football program, an independent commission headed by Hunter Rawlings recommended greater transparency in athletic spending. Rawlings is the head of the Association of American Universities.
Leaders at N.C. State were unavailable for comment Wednesday, a spokesman said.
Some expect the Knight Commission database to be a useful tool for decision makers.
Dubois leads a UNC system task force on athletic finance transparency, which is expected to release recommendations in February.
The group will likely propose that chancellors and trustee boards use the Knight Commission database as one source in their assessment of athletic spending.
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have a good, open and healthy conversation about spending on athletics,” he said.
But, he pointed out, spending on athletics is generally less than 5 percent of institutional budgets.
Charlotte’s football debut
But in the complicated debate over state funded budgets, rising tuition, athletics fees and the cost of education, there’s always going to be some tradeoff, Dubois said. That’s why policymakers need to have the data to understand what’s happening with spending on the athletic side as well as the academic side.
The 49ers football program, Dubois said, has already exceeded expectations in its ability to galvanize the campus and build new bridges with the Charlotte community.
But will it ever be self-sustaining?
“Not a chance,” he said.
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