Basketball Is Enough

Amid Conference Realignment, UConn Should Consider De-emphasizing Football, Sharpening Academic Focus

As Connecticut’s budget pressures limit its funding for UConn (and other state colleges and universities), financial and academic considerations are inevitably linked. And as the UConn women’s basketball team advances through another NCAA tournament, sports receive attention. Athletic, academic, and financial criteria converge on whether to settle for the American Athletic Conference (AAC) or instead contemplate alternatives that should include abandoning the university’s major football ambitions and returning to the Big East.

Men’s and women’s basketball bolster UConn fans and alumni with rewards for the university’s facilities, faculty, students, and reputation. In April 2014, the New York Times featured the added visibility and a Connecticut Mirror article asked if “dual UConn basketball titles” would yield “more donations.” Indeed, 2014 was the UConn Foundation’s best year, with more than $80 million collected. Earlier, basketball glory helped generate popular and legislative support for state bonding initiatives that launched the university into the 21st century.

Football’s benefits are less certain. When UConn’s team reached a prime bowl game, the program reportedly lost money on its unsold ticket allocation. It’s been downhill since. According to a December 2014 Hartford Courant article, “Attendance at … home football games was the lowest ever seen at Rentschler Field in the 2014 season.” A December 2013 Mirror article quoted the President’s Athletic Advisory Committee (PAAC) report: “As with all areas of the university, there are required elements that need to be addressed even in difficult fiscal periods and the challenge is to meet them with reduced resources.”

According to that report, “The purpose of the PAAC is to advise the President on all matters related to athletics including … to maintain and foster a clear commitment to academic integrity and institutional control … [and] to ensure a priority to the commitment to student-athletes’ welfare.”

“Academic Integrity and … Student-Athletes’ Welfare”

A November 2011 McKinsey report, commissioned by the university as part of its “strategic redesign initiative,” revealed “UConn spends $58 million per year on athletics including over $6 million in direct university support with these funds being directed towards Title IX compliance, scholarships and other expenses. This level of institutional support is about average when compared to other peer universities.”

McKinsey consultants continued, “To reduce direct institutional support, we recommend focusing on improving revenues … primarily through increasing ticket receipts…. The department should also closely examine the costs associated with existing programs. For instance, UConn’s $10.0 million expenditure in scholarships, $12.5 million on coaching salaries and $6.4 million in team travel are the most among public Big East programs…. Given the needs and priorities of the University, the administration should examine these costs and associated benefits in greater detail. Should the University decide that the $6 million subsidy to athletics is not in the strategic interest of the institution, the University could consider eliminating some or all of the subsidy to provide incentives for the athletics department to increase its revenues or decrease its costs.”

UConn is no longer in the Big East, and the PAAC’s reference to “student-athletes’ welfare” is significant. Husky athletes now travel more extensively to Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida and other states where AAC schools are located, eliciting concern about classes missed and sleep lost.

Whether UConn fields a major football team or competes at a lower level, there is a matter beyond costs and compromising of the university’s academic mission: player safety. As concussions and other injuries are better understood, the sport’s hazards may threaten its viability in the decades ahead. Should a university with a medical school and growing bioscience emphasis be deepening its investment in a game that may harm players more than it helps them?

“Power” Conferences and a Cautionary Example from the ACC

Most UConn fans would be pleased if the university were to join the Big Ten or Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), which has enjoyed NCAA basketball success this year and includes such schools as Duke and the University of North Carolina (UNC). But such an invitation doesn’t appear imminent. Further, as UConn approaches the same league as UNC academically — if not also athletically (ACC membership would require big-time football) — its example should be cautionary.

Many in the North Carolina academic community regret the power of athletics there. UNC alum S.L. Price wrote of how the esteemed “Carolina Way” was reportedly corrupted by athletic excesses. Fake classes imply a perversion of academic purpose. Athletic success is meant to boost morale and ultimately the resources and strength of the university more broadly. But what if this is backwards, and the costs of football in particular exceed any reasonable benefits?

Only a small number of schools — all outside the northeast, unless you count Boston College and Rutgers — can boast both superior football teams and academic reputations.

Because of revenue-sharing within the so-called “Power Five” conferences, mediocre status in such a conference possibly is sufficient financially to justify pursuing a major football program. Richard Sandomir’s New York Times article suggests football teams in “power” conferences find even obscure bowl games lucrative in luring millions of TV viewers, more than most NCAA basketball tournament teams can attract.

Yet the analysis may differ for a second-rate team in a second-rate conference. I don’t claim knowledge of all the financial virtues of big-time football for an also-ran like the Huskies. Surely even losing seasons, in unfilled stadiums in a less-than-stellar conference, bring some financial gains through TV. But how do these gains compare with the costs of dozens of athletic scholarships, a substantial football staff and facilities, and the apparent penalty imposed upon the university’s basketball program by playing in the AAC?

March saw the AAC earn two bids to the NCAA men’s tournament while the basketball-centric Big East secured six. According to a March Bloomberg article on the NCAA “basketball fund” that describes $199 million to be divided among conferences in 2015, the Big East’s six participating teams and multiple wins will bring it many more “units” and dollars (divided among 10 schools) than the AAC’s two NCAA tournament schools and single win (by Cincinnati), divided among 11 schools.

As the prospect of an invitation to a “power” conference seems remote (UConn, correct me if I’m wrong!), the university should assess the costs of its big-time football aspirations. To what extent do the benefits exceed those costs?

The Economy of Football — “Sunk” Costs, “Opportunity” Costs, and Academic Quality

Economists would characterize much of UConn’s football program as a “sunk cost”; just because tens of millions of dollars have already been devoted to it is not a reason to do more of the same. Another economic question: What is the “opportunity cost” of investing yet more resources in football — by doing so, what is the university forgoing?

“Next Gen CT” — UConn’s 10-year, $1.5 billion expansion plan — doesn’t depend on big-time football. The former should proceed regardless of the latter. Curbing our state’s football ambitions might actually heighten academic quality.

Unless it’s likely that academic and financial benefits will accrue from a major football program, UConn should consider reversing course. One option, leaving the AAC and rejoining the Big East, would involve various trade-offs, from a possible short-term financial penalty to some disgruntled alumni and students — but might make sense.

UConn football’s 2015 home opener will be against Villanova. Villanova and Georgetown retain strong basketball teams; they were among the six Big East schools in the 2015 NCAA men’s tournament. Georgetown football is in the Patriot League, which seems not to hurt academically.

Georgetown (admittedly private and smaller than many state universities) is tied for 21st in the U.S. News list of national universities, just ahead of UCLA and UVA (UNC ranks 30th). Whatever the limitations of such rankings, UConn — slightly trailing such schools as Texas — is tied for 58 with Fordham, SMU, and Syracuse (ahead of Georgia, Maryland, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Texas A & M, and Rutgers.)

There is scarce correlation between football success and academic accomplishment; insofar as the U.S. News rankings are useful, UConn is academically ahead of some better football schools, while trailing various academic institutions that give little heed to football. A better football team will not help UConn surpass, say, Texas or UCLA or Michigan (29th), which will prevail on the gridiron. Academics should remain UConn’s priority.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), in late 2014 announcing its intention to end its football program, cited “costs … spiraling upwards driven by cost-of-attendance payments to players, meals, equipment, facilities, coaches, travel and more.” The decision is controversial and perhaps only provisional. UAB’s president said, “The financial picture made our decision very clear…. To invest at least another $49 million to keep football over the next five years, we would have to redirect funds away from other critical areas of importance like education, research, patient care or student services.”

I’m not suggesting UConn end football altogether, though that might merit consideration, especially as health implications of the sport become clearer.

My case blends principle and pragmatism. If a “power” conference invitation isn’t imminent, UConn should consider reducing its football ambitions while exploring a return of its basketball teams to the Big East and Madison Square Garden. Such a move would balance athletic, academic, and fiscal values.

I am not a UConn graduate, so arguably my views should be discounted. Still, my ties to the university go back decades, to when I was a preschooler in the Child Lab. I have been a Husky basketball fan since the 1970s, participated in Coach Dom Perno’s camp in the ‘80s, and have attended numerous games over the years.

Moreover, I am a Connecticut taxpayer with a belief in UConn’s role as the state’s flagship university — and in its potential to be even stronger as an academic pillar and economic engine.

Josiah H. Brown lives in New Haven, where he works in education and volunteers with and as a youth basketball coach. A version of this piece appears at Connecticut Viewpoints.