The Morass of Big-Time College Football

BY HANK REICHMAN

Remember that widely circulated map illustrating how in 39 of 50 states the highest-paid state employee is a public university football or basketball coach?  If you don’t, here it is:

ykdkqhstdm1ptubyuct2According to USA Today‘s annual survey, in 2015-16 some 72 college football coaches were paid over a million dollars annually, not including bonuses, with Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh leading the pack at $9,004,000.  Dabo Swinney of Clemson, whose team thrillingly upset Alabama for the national title this season, made a base salary of $4,422,700, enriched by a nice 2015-16 bonus (pre-championship) of $1,100,000.  (See also this previous post by Martin Kich.)

Clemson last won a national title in 1981.  At that time its coach was paid a mere $50,000, which would amount to about $140,000 in current dollars.  Clemson’s players, however, haven’t received much of a boost since then.  Today they are paid just a $388 per month stipend to cover expenses.

It’s not surprising, then, that, as Dave Zirin reports in the Nation, Swinney would be asked whether his players might also be paid something for what they do.  If players are ever paid, he answered, “I’ll go do something else because there’s enough entitlement in this world as there is.” Here’s Zirin’s response:

If anyone has expressed an obscene amount of entitlement, it’s Swinney. Here is someone working on a refurbished plantation who makes millions of dollars off the sweat and head injuries of overwhelmingly black, unpaid labor, and yet when asked about the Black Lives Matter movement in September, he said, “Some of these people need to move to another country.”

When asked about players’ protesting during the anthem, he said piously, “It’s so easy to say we have a race problem, but we got a sin problem.” He also stated that his players would be in trouble on his team for exercising this kind of dissent.

In an open letter to Swinney, Clemson professor Chenjerai Kumanyika took on Swinney’s ill-considered evocation of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his statement on athlete protests.  “What better way to silence the profit-threatening specter of black athlete protest than by offering the image of a civil rights activist who protested in a way that was more ‘professional’ and ‘convenient’ for everyone?” the professor asked.  He added:

I winced when I heard a reporter ask you, a white man who makes somewhere in the area of $5 million a year from the physical labor and bodily risk of unpaid black athletes, if he would “discipline” them for making a political statement. Given that you and I both work on the former plantation of John C. Calhoun, the historical significance of the question is staggering and troubling. . . .

I want the best for our students that are also working athletes. But when I heard that we were building a $55 million dollar facility that won’t be available to most students, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other challenges at our university could be solved with $55 or even $30 million.

The insecure working conditions and low pay of our dedicated and excellent custodial, food service, and administrative staff is injustice. They work relentlessly everyday, with a positive attitude, running this university. But they also suffer a variety of ongoing problems and challenges.

The abysmally low levels of recruitment and especially retention of students and faculty of color at Clemson is injustice. In truth, the low recruitment of people of all ethnicities from the poorest parts of our state is injustice. The treatment of Clemson’s vulnerable international graduate students is injustice. The lack of a day care center is injustice. The fact that our most recognizable building bears the name of the white supremacist terrorist Ben Tillman is injustice. It is injustice when students protest these conditions and they are arrested, their reputations tarnished, and their careers threatened.

But Swinney is no isolated case.  In September former Maryland congressman and NBA star Tom McMillen took the helm of the association of Division 1A athletic directors, which he swiftly “rebranded” as “LEAD1,” moving its headquarters from Dallas to Washington. Founded in 1986 as the D1A Athletic Directors’ Association, the group’s members are the athletic directors of schools in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), formerly known as Division I-A, the top tier of collegiate football programs that are eligible to compete for the national championship. The group, under McMillen’s prodding, is in process of forming a political action committee

“I have always advocated for the student-athlete, and this opportunity will allow me to continue that work,” McMillen said at the time of his appointment.  “The 126 athletic programs that constitute the Division IA Athletic Director’s Association are a powerful force in meeting the needs of student athletes — and we want to do even better in helping those student athletes in the future.”

But these pious words were followed by less charitable deeds.  Earlier this month the Washington Post reported that McMillen had arranged LEAD1’s first “congressional gala” to be held next September in, you guessed it, the ballroom of Donald Trump’s D.C. hotel.  According to an early draft of the brochure for the event obtained by the Post, “the LEAD1 College Sports Congressional Gala will be a one of a kind event” that will allow athletic directors to meet with “members of Congress, and special guests, including the President and Vice President of the United States.”  It seems that McMillen and Trump go back to 1985, when the alleged billionaire first donated to McMillen’s campaign for Congress.

According to the Post, “McMillen said he began identifying members of Congress in positions to protect college programs from the ‘devastating’ effects of paying amateur athletes, who he said already benefit tremendously from athletic scholarships. He offered the example of a women’s basketball player who could be riding the bench but receiving more than $100,000 in annual tax-free benefits.

“Not only does she get the scholarship but she gets room and board, she gets unlimited meals, she gets health care, she gets emergency travel if she needs it for her family, she gets unlimited tutoring,” he said. “So there are unlimited benefits for this kid.”

Andrew Zimbalist, the Robert A. Woods Professor of Economics at Smith College and an expert on sports economics, told the Post that LEAD1’s “end game is that they want to maintain the system as close to its current form as possible.  They want to maintain NCAA amateurism. It’s under fire.”

A series of lawsuits have been brought in recent years against universities and the NCAA concerning the treatment of athletes (for examples see here and here), focusing on whether they can be paid or receive publicity rights. Hence, Zimbalist said, it makes “perfect sense” for McMillen to mobilize his association of athletic directors for political action.  “If they’re not paying athletes, they can spend more money on salaries for coaches and for themselves,” he added. “Everything has been going in the right direction for them.”

But the problems associated with big-time college football extend beyond extravagant overpayment of coaches and scandalous exploitation of players.  As Bloomberg News recently reported, “College Football’s Top Teams Are Built on Crippling Debt“:

Football critics nationwide often point to multimillion-dollar coaches as emblems of excess. They should be more worried about debt, which costs more and lasts longer. A high-priced coach might earn $4 million to $5 million a year. Meanwhile, according to public records, athletic departments at at least 13 schools in the country have long-term debt obligations of more than $150 million as of 2014—money usually borrowed to build ever-nicer facilities for the football team.

The poster child for such debt problems is the University of California at Berkeley, known to sports fans as Cal, which often boasts that it is the greatest public research university in the world.  As I’ve reported previously on this blog, Berkeley faces serious budgetary problems, with the administration claiming an ongoing “structural deficit” of some $150 million annually.  Athletic debt is a major contributor to that deficit.  It is not just that Berkeley famously spent some $13 million on two football coaches at once even as their athletic program finished in absolute last place among Division 1A schools in academic achievement.  As Bloomberg notes, “the Golden Bears now owe more money than any other college sports program. Hobbled by debt service payments, the athletic department ran a $22 million deficit last year and expects to end this fiscal year deep in the red.”

The biggest problem stems from the expensive renovation of the university’s football stadium, which sits directly atop the dangerous Hayward Earthquake Fault.  Annual payments for the stadium project will be $18 million until 2032, when they jump to $26 million. They’ll peak at $37 million a year in 2039. The school plans to pay off the full sum by 2053, though the loan extends to 2112, according to Bloomberg’s report.  The athletic department planned to finance these payments through an “Endowment Seating Program,” decades-long season ticket packages for up to $225,000 each, but sales have lagged and are now collapsing.

Indeed, attendance at Cal football games has plummeted dramatically since the renovation.  One explanation is that the school’s student body, now nearly 50% of Asian ethnicity, is less interested in football than previous generations were.  That may be, but it’s probably not the main factor.  At the end of the season Cal fired football coach Sonny Dykes after four seasons, with three years remaining on his contract.  He was quickly replaced by Wisconsin defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.  Unless Dykes finds a new position that pays more, the university will be liable to him for up to $3 million annually through 2019.  The team’s poor showing on the field and Dykes’s widely reported interest in other head coaching positions were said to be factors, but, as San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross reported, a bigger problem is that “season ticket renewals for Cal’s 2017 season have dropped more than 30 percent from the same time last year, threatening a $2 million financial punch unless something changes.”

As Matier and Ross add in a column yesterday, “It’s going to take more than hiring a new coach and winning a few games to boost Cal football’s sagging season-ticket sales.”  They report:

We were deluged with emails from alumni last week after reporting that Cal had canned coach Sonny Dykes out of a near-panic about plunging season-ticket renewals. They’re down 30 percent in the aftermath of the Golden Bears’ latest uninspiring season.

The Old Blues’ message: It wasn’t so much Dykes or the team’s 5-7 record last year. What’s driving them away are the late-night contests whose starting times aren’t finalized until a few days before the game — all to serve the Pac-12 conference’s new master, its megabucks TV contract.

The irony here would be delicious if the impact on the larger university weren’t so devastating.  Cal plays in the Pac-12 Conference and Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott told Bloomberg that he expects his schools will make more money from media as rights get carved up among traditional broadcasters and digital streaming platforms.  All of the biggest conferences signed rich, multiyear television contracts recently, and most athletic directors believe the money will continue to flow into the next round of negotiations as well.  For some schools, millions in TV money can support a high level of debt service. That includes the University of Alabama, which owes $225 million over the next 28 years. In the Big Ten, also flush from a rich media deal, the University of Illinois owes more than $260 million.  However, notes the Bloomberg report, “If that revenue stream fails to grow or starts to drop, as it already has for some programs in the top tier of college football, the results could be crippling.”

“Attendance at the top division of college football dropped for the seventh straight year,” Bloomberg reports.

The modest average decline—roughly a percentage point per year—includes consistently sold-out powerhouses that cover some steep drop-offs. In the Big 12 Conference, the average crowd at the University of Kansas has dropped by 50 percent since 2009. Western Michigan University never came close to filling its 30,200-seat stadium in 2016, in spite of the most successful season in Broncos history. . . .

The entire home attendance for 47 schools in college football’s top division fell short of the one-day crowd that turned out to see Virginia Tech versus Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway in September. Ball State averaged a division-low 7,789 per game. FAU was fourth from the bottom at 10,073.

This is the context for the pickle in which Berkeley now finds itself.  The Pac-12 contract guarantees that every Cal game will be televised, either by the Pac-12 Network, ESPN or Fox Sports. Athletic Director Mike Williams said the money from the TV contract plays “a key role in the competitive success of every one” of the school’s 30 men’s and women’s sports teams.  He also said the TV deal “has provided significantly more national exposure for our football program, approximately 43 percent more households per game.”

But whatever gains there have been may be undercut by the growing number of empty seats in the stands. In the past Cal’s games started in early afternoon.  But now most begin at 7:30 at night, putting an end to long-standing student and alumni rituals and crippling dinner business in Berkeley’s downtown, where fans used to congregate (and spend money) after the game.  “Who wants to go to a game that gets over at midnight, especially in late October or November when temperatures can get pretty low?” said alumnus Roger Graham.  Hence the free fall in attendance and, I might add, the loss of tradition and, well, the whole supposed point of intercollegiate athletics.

“It’s all a money grab controlled by people who don’t care a whit about folks like me,” said Blair Jackson of Oakland, class of ’75. “You’ve lost me, Bears!”  And in the end, the sad thing is that the money apparently isn’t even there.

 

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