Well, that didn’t last very long, did it?
It was only December when Dr. Ray Watts, the president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, announced that after a strategic review, the school had decided to stop fielding a football team. The main reason for Watts’ decision was financial: two-thirds of the athletic department’s $30 million budget came from a combination of university funds and student fees. When a consultant concluded that the subsidy would have to more than double over the next five years for the football team to be competitive, Watts said, “Enough.” “We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,” he told me at the time.
The university seemed to me then - and seems to me now - exactly the kind of school that should be rethinking football. It did not have a long football tradition - the team had been around for only 24 years. Its last winning season was in 2004. Its fan support was tepid; playing in a stadium with a capacity of 72,000, it averaged fewer than 20,000 fans a game until last year, when the number jumped to 21,800.
Besides, college sports, especially football, are getting more expensive. The major conferences are beginning to pay their athletes stipends that reflect the “full cost of attendance,” which can add $1 million or more in costs. There is the constant need to upgrade facilities to be able to recruit top-notch athletes. College coaches’ salaries are rising almost as fast as CEO pay.
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Schools in smaller conferences - Alabama-Birmingham is in Conference USA - have struggled to keep up, especially state schools whose budgets have been cut by their legislatures. (According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state spending per student in Alabama has declined over 36 percent since 2008.) USA Today does an annual ranking of university athletic department balance sheets, and you can clearly see this trend. Rutgers University had a $36 million deficit; the University of Connecticut, $27 million; the University of Massachusetts, $26 million; Eastern Michigan University, $25 million - and on the list goes.
Now fast forward to June 1 - when Watts did an about-face and announced that the university was not abandoning football after all. In the time between his first announcement in December and his second one last week, there was a huge outcry among the residents of Birmingham. Despite the lack of fan support and the team’s tradition of losing, people reacted as if nothing were more important than getting their college football team back. There were calls for Watts to be fired.
When I asked Watts whether he had been taken aback by the outcry, he said he had been. A neurologist who was previously the dean of the university’s medical school - and now presides over a $3 billion institution - Watts was yet another college president who found himself spending ridiculous amounts of time dealing with sports.
But he really didn’t have much choice, given the passion the cancellation of football had aroused in the city. So, while continuing to insist that the university would not increase its subsidy beyond the current $20 million, Watts told the various interested parties that he would reinstate football (along with the bowling and rifle teams, which had also been cut) if they found a way to pay for it.
The university also commissioned a second study, which concluded that an additional $17.2 million would be needed over the next five years to field a competitive football team, plus $12 million to $14 million for a new practice facility.
There are those, like Andy Schwarz, a Bay Area economist who is an expert on the economics of college sports (and did his own study on the UAB football decision), who say that the subsidy reported by most universities is wildly overstated, and that schools get numerous benefits for having a football team. But that is not the argument that anyone in Birmingham made. Instead, they accepted the idea that the football team had to be subsidized - and that they had to raise the money.
Which is what they did. By the end of May, the city’s corporate leaders had pledged to make up the additional $17.2 million subsidy, and had made a promising start on raising the $13 million or so needed for the practice facility.
When I asked Hatton Smith, the chief executive emeritus of Royal Cup Coffee and one of the fundraising leaders, why it was so important to revive the football team, he essentially replied that it was a matter of civic pride.
“In most major cities, there is some form of college football,” he said. “We think UAB football adds to the quality of life in our community.”
The way he described it, it was as if UAB wouldn’t be a top-notch university anymore without a football team.
Thus does the cart come before the horse.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for the New York Times.