Most University Presidents Agree Current Athletics Spending is Unsustainable

Press Release

October 26, 2009

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First-of-Its-Kind Survey Discussed at 20th-Anniversary Knight Commission Meeting Reveals Dilemma of Reform, Overwhelming Agreement on Excessive Coaching Salaries

MIAMI, FL (October 26, 2009) – University presidents at institutions with major football programs agree that current spending trends on intercollegiate athletics cannot be sustained nationally and collective action is needed to address escalating costs, a study released at a meeting held by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics revealed today. More than 80% of Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS, formerly Division 1A) university presidents participated in a survey that examined the presidents’ attitudes and perceptions about the challenges, benefits and costs of supporting intercollegiate athletic programs.

Additional Knight Commission research reveals the subsidies provided by most FBS institutions to their athletics budgets are rising more quickly than educational budgets. This, together with other opinions revealed in the survey, underscores the urgency to address the escalating costs of college sports through collective action, which requires support from presidents, NCAA leadership, university boards of trustees and conferences across the country. The Commission intends to make its own recommendations in a report scheduled to be released next spring. In its deliberations, the Commission will consider the survey findings, additional research published in its online report, College Sports 101, and the testimonies made by higher education and college sports experts during public meetings held by the Commission over the past year.

Key findings from the presidential survey conducted by Art & Science Group include:

  • 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. 

“The presidential research findings are eye-opening and raise concerns, but I am encouraged that we find ourselves in an environment ready for change,” said Knight Commission co-chairman William E. “Brit” Kirwan, Chancellor of University System of Maryland. “The Commission will deliberate over the next several months before issuing specific recommendations early next year.  However, we believe evidence continues to support the need for greater financial transparency and will consider ways this can be achieved.  Academic reform in college sports hit a tipping point when graduation rates were first shared publically in the early 1990s, and the same can hold true with greater disclosure of ballooning athletics costs in relationship to institutional budgets.”

“It’s important that a majority of presidents support collective action to address financial pressures.  We have heard the same call from athletics directors who deal with these issues on the front lines,” said Knight Commission co-chairman R. Gerald Turner, President of Southern Methodist University.

Potential solutions as well as an assessment of whether the current structure is equipped to address the mounting problems were discussed today at a meeting held in Miami that commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Knight Commission’s founding. Former NCAA President Cedric W. Dempsey and The Ohio State University Athletics Director Eugene D. Smith both echoed the environment ready for change but propose different solutions.

Smith noted that athletic directors have been forced to become entrepreneurs and urged continued control of athletics by university presidents. “The presidents at the end of the day are in control, and the athletic directors need to help them,” Smith said. “We need to come up with strategies that help the have-nots so they can sustain their missions.”

Big Ten Commissioner James E. Delany warned the Knight Commission, “Cost-cutting is a contact sport in a conflict-rich environment.”

Dutch Baughman, executive director of the Division IA Athletic Directors Association, said his group is proposing immediate cost-cutting reforms. He acknowledged they are among the “low-hanging fruit.” Among the reforms are smaller traveling squads, the elimination of foreign travel for athletics, banning off-campus hotel stays before a home game, restrictions on Web site expansion, and placing limits on sport team staff hiring.

Also unveiled today is College Sports 101, an interactive, Web-based report that provides an overview of the business and economic landscape of college sports. This report, which uses NCAA data made available for the first time, pegs the median budget for the top 12 institutions at $83 million; the median for those schools in the lowest grouping is $14 million. The widening gap between the financially strong and weaker programs helps explain the disparity of presidential opinions on these tough issues.  

The executive summary and full research report on presidents’ perceptions of the benefits and costs of intercollegiate athletics as well as College Sports 101 can be found at www.KnightCommission.org.

About the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics was formed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in October 1989 in response to more than a decade of highly visible scandals in college sports. The goal of the Commission was to promote a reform agenda that emphasized academic values in a climate in which commercialization of college sports often overshadowed the underlying goals of higher education. More information about the Commission’s history including prior reports can be found at www.KnightCommission.org.

About the Presidential Survey on the Cost and Financing of Intercollegiate Athletics

The survey reports the views of presidents for the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) universities on the costs and financing of intercollegiate athletics. The findings are based on 95 quantitative telephone interviews and 22 qualitative follow-up telephone interviews with presidents. The quantitative component achieved an 80 percent completion rate.  The study was conducted by Art & Science Group of Baltimore, MD, from March to July 2009.   

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation advances journalism in the digital age and invests in the vitality of communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. Knight Foundation focuses on projects that promote community engagement and lead to transformational change. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.

About Art & Science Group

Art & Science Group specializes in market-informed strategy and planning for higher education and is one of the most highly regarded consulting firms working in the field. The firm’s practice involves close collaboration with presidents, provosts, boards of trustees, and other senior leadership of colleges and universities across the country. For more information about Art & Science Group’s work in the market-research, strategy, and planning arenas, visit www.artsci.com.