College Football’s Impact on Universities

Graphic: Zain Olson | Data:

In the afternoon of November 6, 1869, a crowd of 100 spectators in New Brunswick, New Jersey watched Rutgers take on Princeton in what is now considered the first American football game. In this violent and physical competition, 25 players on each team fought to move down the 120-yard field without carrying or throwing the ball — making it appear more like a soccer or rugby match. Ultimately, Rutgers bested Princeton 6–4 (as the scoring system also differed substantially) and literally chased their opponents out of town after the victory. While this historic game looked vastly different than today’s competitions, it became the foundation for one of America’s most iconic pastimes: college football.

“The Big Game” by Arnold Friberg depicting the first college football game

Now, 150 years later, the game has evolved far beyond its humble roots into the second most popular sport in the U.S., drawing in 46.9 million fans to stadiums across the country each fall. In addition, 136 million unique television viewers tuned in to a college game last season, producing five of the six most-viewed cable broadcasts last year. Unsurprisingly, such massive attendance and demand for the sport leads to lucrative broadcast deals, merchandising opportunities, and sponsorships in excess of $2 billion for the top 20 programs. Even the NCAA, the nonprofit that oversees collegiate athletics, brings in close to $8 billion every year — a figure not unreasonably far from the NFL’s $13.3 billion earnings in 2016.

With numbers so astronomical, it can be very easy to forget that the institutions behind these world-class teams are universities who are nonprofits themselves. Their primary goal is first and foremost to educate students, so should they really be spending upwards of $50 million dollars each season to field amateur football programs that look anything but amateur? Some argue that college football brings prestige to a university, assists with recruiting efforts, and gives alumni a chance to remain connected to their alma mater, all in addition to that monstrous payday if your program is successful. Those opposed to the sport say it degrades the academic mission of universities, leads to corruption and scandal, and is too expensive, raising already bloated tuition costs. Whatever your opinion, it will come as no surprise that college football is here to stay, and whether you like it or not, the sport certainly has its merits and drawbacks.

The Good

If your university is one of the 24 institutions with athletic departments making more money than they spend, college football can be a fantastic way to boost the school’s bottom line and support other areas on campus. However, if your university is one of the other 105 NCAA D1 universities that spend more than they bring in, football can still be a lucrative way to boost prestige and increase potential applicants. One of the most famous examples of this comes from the so-called “Flutie Effect” named after the legendary final Hail Mary pass thrown by Doug Flutie in the 1984 Orange Bowl.

Courtesy of CBS YouTube Channel

While this game-winning throw gave Boston College the win against Miami, the countless replays on highlight reels and newscasts around the nation put Boston in the minds of thousands of potential college applicants. Within two years of that football game, the school saw an astounding 30% increase in submitted applications all because of the national attention that fateful play received. To see similar returns from the academic side of the university, tuition would have to be lowered by 3.8% or the quality of education would have to be raised by hiring better faculty paid 5.1% more than their average rate. For smaller schools like Boston College, this type of exposure is invaluable and something they cannot afford to buy.

To determine the dollar value of this exposure, Temple University commissioned a research firm to track the equivalent dollar value of all the media coverage they received during their highly successful 2016 football season. They discovered it would have cost an astounding $38 million to achieve that same reach without a football team — a figure far too lofty for a midsized school like Temple to ever shell out for a marketing campaign. While the university might have still technically spent more money than it brought in from the football program, some would call this national exposure a worthwhile payout.

Among this “free” publicity, college football also gives students a sense of community, brings non-students to campus, encourages alumni donations, and provides full-ride scholarships to over 11,000 athletes each year, plus it is just plain fun to watch. All combined, it is not difficult to understand why administrators and university trustees adore the sport and continually pump money into programs; however, this is not to say that college football is not without its problems.

The Bad

The most glaring issue with college football is the obscene amounts of money pumped into programs of all sizes, whether or not they turn a profit for the university. In 2015, the NCAA found that, of the 129 D1 NCAA FBS schools, only 24 generated more revenue than they spent and the other 105 teams lost money each year on their football programs.

In the never-ending race to the top, teams pump millions into new stadiums, training facilities and locker rooms at a blistering pace, often neglecting other areas of campus that desperately need renovations. For example, take LSU who recently unveiled a $28 million renovation to their locker room that included sleeping pods, a weight room, and a nutrition center serving prime rib and king crab. The facility is as state-of-the-art as they come, yet there is a campus-wide $700 million backlog in deferred maintenance. One of the worst areas is the main library which hasn’t been renovated since the 80s and floods every year — talk about a juxtaposition between academics and athletics. The images below illustrate the rampant disparity between the locker room and the library at LSU.

Courtesy of Louisiana State University
Courtesy of Cat McKinney — Twitter

While the select few universities make enough money to fuel their bloated programs, the remaining are forced to draw upon their general fund after ticket sales, alumni donations, and TV contracts fail to cover the rest. This fund is often fueled in part by student fees. Take the University of Houston, who last year spent $8 million of their student’s money to fund their athletic programs (in addition to another $17 million from their own reserves). In all this, only a select few individuals are coming out ahead — mostly the broadcasters and coaching staff — and it certainly is not the student’s paying for the programs or the athletes playing in them.

A recent report found that the average FBS D1 football player is worth $163,087 per year at the fair market price to compensate them for the revenue they bring in; this number only skyrockets when you look at teams like Michigan ($510,153) and Texas ($666,029). Considering these athletes only receive a scholarship that might equal that average pay over four years, some might say they are being taken advantage of. However, NCAA regulations have recently loosened to allow players to begin earning income off their name and likeness — a change that will certainly alleviate some of these issues.

With all this money flowing in and out of college football, it is no secret that the sport has been flooded with scandal from the very beginning. Even back in 1906, the president of Duke University wrote that there was too much commercialism creeping into college sports, that it was corroding academic standards, and basically that money was becoming a serious problem and skewing everybody’s perception of right and wrong. If he could only see the athletic landscape today… In an era marked by sexual assault at Baylor and the Sandusky scandal at Penn State (among countless others), it is not hard to see the college football cash cow often brings out the worst in people trying to keep the status quo.

No matter how anyone personally feels about intercollegiate football, there is no arguing that it is here to stay. The entertainment value, revenue, and prestige it brings in on a national scale will ensure that the sport will be around for decades to come, even with its massive social and monetary costs.