No More Holiday Inn Overnights?

As Jesse noted earlier today, collegiate athletics spending has been surging with the momentum of an offensive lineman, but schools with major football programs agree that rising costs cannot be sustained. According to a study released Monday by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, most Football Bowl Subdivision university presidents believe that some kind of collective action is necessary to address the problem.

A closer look at the study is especially useful. Here are the survey’s “key findings,” as presented in the Knight Commission’s recent press release:

Dilemma of reform – While presidents recognize the need for reform, there is a lack of clear consensus about the best way to effect change. Nearly three-quarters believe that athletics present unique challenges as compared to other areas of the university when trying to control costs on their own campus. A majority believe institutions must act collectively to address these escalating costs.

Sustainability – Less than a quarter of presidents believe intercollegiate athletics are sustainable in their current form at FBS institutions nationally. Two-thirds view their own programs as sustainable; but nearly half (48%) express concern that the current economic outlook will affect the number of varsity sports their institution can support in the future.

Salaries – When asked about salaries across FBS institutions nationally, an overwhelming majority (85%) of FBS presidents indicate they feel compensation is excessive for football and basketball coaches. Viewed as the greatest impediment to sustainability, coaches’ salaries are costs that are difficult to control.

Growing Divide between Haves and Have-Nots – A major concern is the growing imbalance between financially strong and weak programs. Presidents of less competitive institutions feel that their programs are unfairly exploited.

Transparency – More than 80% of presidents believe greater financial transparency is needed.

Benefits of Athletics – College presidents perceive athletic success provides substantial benefits to the institution, such as generating higher levels of fundraising, attracting better qualified students, enhancing school spirit and raising the profile of the institution. Although research generally does not support a significant correlation between athletic success and increased donations or better student quality, FBS university presidents are swayed by personal experience that there are cross-institutional benefits of winning sports programs.

These findings notwithstanding, it remains to be seen whether schools will actually be able to work together to solve this prisoner’s-dilemma-style challenge in which what is best for each school (promoting winning sports programs) is harmful for higher education as a whole. But some type of action is clearly necessary. The NCAA reports that major college athletic programs increased their expenses by 10.7 percent annually from 2004 to 2007, while overall university spending grew by only 4.9 percent per year. Let us hope that Knight Commission co-chairman William E. “Brit” Kirwan is correct when he says that “we find ourselves in an environment ready for change.”

Daniel Fromson

Daniel Fromson is an editorial intern at the Washington Monthly. He previously interned at Harper's Magazine, and he has written for Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.