College Sports 101: A Primer on Money, Athletics, and Higher Education in the 21st Century

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Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics
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Intercollegiate athletics at the country’s most prominent colleges and universities has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise. It involves not only institutions of higher education, but also television networks, apparel manufacturers, advertisers from all sectors, and above all, millions of fans and donors. Now, almost all state flagship universities, many regional institutions, and some private research universities maintain teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), formerly Division I-A.

At these institutions, athletics are a focal point for universities and their communities. Tens of thousands of fans (and at a few institutions, over a hundred thousand) come to cheer on football teams, with smaller numbers flocking to men’s basketball and other sports. Team logos and nicknames are recognized coast-to-coast, branding their institutions for people who could not find the university on a map. Donors give munificent sums to fund athletic scholarships or construct stadiums.

A handful of the most visible athletics programs can afford to spend more than $80 million annually on their operations, thanks to such donations as well as ticket revenue, royalties from championship events, licensing and sponsorship revenue, and broadcast rights. Indeed, most fans and observers of college sports believe that the majority of athletics departments generate large net sums of money for their institutions. A 2006 survey sponsored by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics found that 78 percent of Americans polled believed athletics programs were profitable (Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, 2006).

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