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More trouble ahead for college athletics?

A new database unveiled by the Knight Commission last week shows some competitions looming when it comes to college sports spending – not only athletic dollars vs. academic dollars, but big schools vs. those who wish they were.

The database, which compared expenses at public NCAA Division I schools, showed that spending on athletes is growing at a robust rate while academic spending per student is stagnant or dropping. The spike for athletic expenses is especially stark at schools that compete in major conferences; Ohio State, for example, spent a stunning $381,000 per player on football in 2011.

At North Carolina schools, the spending on all athletes was more modest – $96,135 at UNC and $100,319 at N.C. State – but those numbers, too, are rising while spending on other students dropped or stayed level.

What the database didn’t show, however, was that schools spend more on athletics than academics. That’s one misleading narrative coming from the database’s release, including a headline from an N.C. newspaper last week that declared: “Athletics spending dwarfs academic spending on campuses.”

It doesn’t. Spending on athletics, when measured against overall university budgets, continues to be only about 5 to 6 percent of total expenses. In fact, the money that goes to athletes largely doesn’t come from the same pool as the money that goes toward academics. Athletic departments, especially in the major conferences, continue to pay most or all of their expenses with the revenue sports bring in.

Also, the subsidies that universities do pay athletics departments are often more than repaid with the positive branding sports provides the schools. That’s not just true at the biggest schools. Ask the nearest UNC Charlotte official if he or she regrets the significant buzz that came from the football program’s inaugural season this year.

Still, the Knight database shows a continuing and concerning trend – college sports are getting more expensive. An NCAA study released this year showed that at schools competing at the highest level – the Football Bowl Subdivision – spending on athletics increased 10.8 percent while income rose only 4.6 percent. Much of the money goes toward ever-expanding coaches’ salaries, not to mention the arms race of building and improving facilities to attract better athletes.

Those expenses are especially challenging for FBS schools that want to compete with the biggest of the big schools but don’t have the benefit of TV contracts that bring money to major conferences. While major programs can for now absorb rising expenses, smaller programs may see more non-revenue sports threatened or may have their palms up for more university subsidies.

That’s already happening in some places, said William “Brit” Kirwan, co-chair of the Knight Commission. It’s inevitable that soon, more schools will be forced to decide if they want to divert significant resources from academics to athletics. Given how even proud schools like UNC have lost their way because of the tug of big-dollar athletics, that’s a troubling prospect indeed.

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