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NC State AD Debbie Yow has a simple philosophy on sports sponsorship: She is a stickler for playing by the rules. Read more »
Editor's note: This is the first part in a story package examining Division I sport sponsorship. Read the second story here.
By Gary Brown
Division I member institutions are expected to be nationally competitive, to offer broad-based participation opportunities for men and women, and to be as economically self-sufficient as possible.
So says the Division I philosophy statement.
But the modern reality might be that financial pressures to achieve competitive success are affecting institutional commitments to broad-based programming.
A look at the sports that schools in the “equity” conferences – the Atlantic Coast, the Big East, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pacific-10 and the Southeastern – offer to satisfy participation opportunities and maintain national competitiveness reveals divergent paths.
According to the NCAA membership database, Big Ten schools average 25 varsity programs, followed by the ACC with 23 and the Pac-10 with 22. The SEC and Big East each average 20, while the Big 12 averages 18.
Individually, the range is more striking. Stanford and Ohio State are the standard-bearers of broad-based athletics programs with almost three dozen sports apiece. Boston College offers 31, and more than a dozen others field at least 25. Almost 40 schools, though, offer 20 or fewer, and several hover at or near the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision minimum of 16.
Although many factors contribute to why schools offer the programs they do, money usually tops the list. Even though schools from these conferences have the largest budgets in all of Division I, the current recession is taxing even their ability to balance the philosophical pillars of participation and competitiveness. While no one disputes that higher participation in a larger number of sports fits well with the educational mission of college athletics, behaviors may suggest that strong incentives exist for schools to offer a limited number of well-funded, extremely competitive sports instead.
That may present a problem not only for the students who have fewer chances to reap the educational and life benefits of athletics participation but also for the Association as a whole.
That concern was raised at the Knight Commission’s May 2009 meeting when John Colombo, a University of Illinois, Champaign, tax law professor, posed whether the NCAA’s tax exemption could be leveraged against controlled spending and thus help restore big-time sports to its broad-based roots.
The matter wasn’t resolved then, but it did pique the interest of Penn State professor Scott Kretchmar. He compared sports sponsorship and athletics expenditures among institutions and conferences to gain an idea about the relationships among spending, sports sponsorship and participation.
Peering into his own conference, for example, Kretchmar saw that Minnesota and Purdue reported similar athletics expenditures but that the Gophers offered five more sports than the Boilermakers. And Ohio State, even with its nearly $100 million budget, reported spending less per student-athlete than four other
Big Ten schools.
“Why does Ohio State have 34 sports and Illinois 21?” Kretchmar asked. “Why would Ohio State sponsor so many sports and spend less per athlete?
“I asked (Ohio State Athletics Director) Gene Smith this once and he said, ‘That’s just the way we do it here.’ ”
Marquette and Georgetown provide another interesting comparison, Kretchmar discovered. Marquette has 14 sports (the minimum for Division I schools without football), yet Big East peer Georgetown offers 28. Meanwhile, Marquette has a bigger enrollment, and both schools have similar budgets.
Kretchmar said when Colombo presented his argument at the Knight Commission meeting, it was whether schools were living up to their tax-law requirements of providing participation, since that is what gave them the tax exemption in the first place. Kretchmar said Colombo’s argument is that tax law is a wedge to pressure schools to follow through on the educational promise of college sports.
“By a strict interpretation of Colombo’s argument, Georgetown is doing a better job educationally than Marquette,” Kretchmar said.
Of course, the issue of sports sponsorship is much grayer than that.
Former AD Gary Cunningham, now retired but who once oversaw programs at UC Santa Barbara, Fresno State and Wyoming, said sport sponsorship is influenced by both historical and philosophical factors. Institutional sports offerings usually reflect what is important to people in their region.
“But those decisions are the institution’s prerogative,” he said, pointing to yet another sacred tenet of Division I membership – institutional autonomy. “While your ultimate goal is to be competitive and to win, unless you can give teams the resources to win, the recommendation usually is let’s not go on, because you’re not giving the student-athlete the quality of the experience.”
That may beg the question of whether the quality of the experience is more important than the experience itself.
Kretchmar, who was a three-sport student-athlete at Division III Oberlin, echoes the NCAA mission statement – as many others do, regardless of what division they are in – when he says that “participation is one of the cornerstones in the foundation of college sports and one of the basic defenses for having college athletics in institutions of higher education.”
But he is quick to add that there are dramatic differences in the decisions schools make about what kind of participation to support.
Smith provides an example at Ohio State, which sponsors synchronized swimming even though it’s not an NCAA-championship sport. The reason, Smith said, is an inclusive philosophy that has been shaped through time and circumstance.
Smith said most ADs fight passionately to offer as many sports as possible without backing off the competitive drive. Not fully funding the sport puts the athletes at an immediate disadvantage against institutions that do, said Smith, who was at Eastern Michigan, Iowa State and Arizona State before joining the Buckeyes.
“And I have been passionate about the value of sports participation,” he said, noting how his administrative career was shaped by his football student-athlete days in high school and college. “When I had to drop sports at Eastern Michigan, I said to myself that was the last time I was going to do that. When I interviewed at Ohio State, I said if that’s the direction we have to go, I’m not your guy.”
Almost all of Smith’s peers share that philosophy, he said. How well they can maintain it, though, is usually a matter of funding.
“Nobody wants to drop sports,” Smith said, “but it’s all about money.”
A number of schools in these economic times, Smith said, are trying to hold onto the sports they have by not fully funding all of them and hoping that their revenue recovers before they have to take more drastic measures.
Cunningham said that’s a risky proposition.
“No one competes without the goal of winning,” he said. “Division I athletics is the highest level of competition – it’s not an intramural program where anybody can play. No, it’s a privilege to participate – and if you can’t provide the resources, then it’s not worth pursuing.”
Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany cited the sport-sponsorship gap during a recent Division I Leadership Council meeting to illustrate how cost-cutting measures that group is proposing might need to be stratified to meet the needs of institutions at various resource levels.
He pointed out that some Ivy League schools are offering 36 sports on relatively small budgets while schools from other leagues have budgets of more than $100 million and are offering 18 sports.
Ask Delany why Big Ten schools tend to be in the upper ranks of sport sponsorship and he again invokes the Ivies.
“The Big Ten developed its sport-sponsorship principles with an eye toward the Ivy League model, going back many years,” Delany said. “The Ivies sponsor more sports and have more student-athletes than we do on a per-institution basis, but they would be the only group to make that claim. They were there at the beginning, and we were there, relatively speaking, at the beginning. We were sponsoring intercollegiate athletics in the late 19th century, and we’ve had the notion of broad-based programs ever since.”
That’s due to the notion that intercollegiate athletics and education are linked by virtue and that athletics competition is good for everyone, not just for those who take part in sports that make money, Delany said.
“Even when we look at cost containment, we look at it from the perspective of maintaining the current opportunities,” he said. “Those opportunities are the last thing to go. The bells and whistles can go – how we travel, the number of coaches and administrative personnel – but participation opportunities are the last to go.”
He did acknowledge that it’s far easier for an institution with a $60 million or $70 million budget to get by if it has 16 teams rather than 26.
“But,” he said, “the 26 approach is what we have chosen to do, and since we have an aversion to dropping opportunities, our alternative is to tone down administrative or other
Indeed, the last Big Ten school to eliminate a sport was Michigan State in 2001 when it dropped men’s gymnastics. In the past 10 years, in fact, only two Big Ten schools have cut teams.
Then again, conferences that do not have that kind of broad-based history aren’t necessarily offering second-rate participation opportunities, either.
The Big 12 and Southeastern Conferences offer fewer sports on average than their Big Ten and Pac-10 counterparts, but the Big 12 and SEC have accounted for eight of the 12 Bowl Championship Series winners and three of the last five men’s basketball champions.
But just as Delany said the Big Ten’s philosophy is rooted in history, sport-sponsorship totals in leagues that average fewer might be just as historically based.
Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe said, for example, that it might be more about what the schools “grew up with” than a commitment to a philosophy, which might explain why certain sports like water polo, men’s volleyball, lacrosse and squash tend to be regionally oriented.
Beebe also cites the money factor as a force that has shaped history and that likely will affect the future, too, particularly for those athletics programs that rely on institutional subsidies to survive. That’s where the pressure on the broad-based philosophy is greatest, Beebe said.
“If you’re a public institution that has to subsidize $8 (million) to $10 million and you don’t want to cut back on football or basketball because that’s where you get your notoriety, fan support and everything else, then you might be inclined to want lower sponsorship numbers,” Beebe said.
While no one seems to look openly askance at the sports-sponsorship differences within Division I, Penn State AD Tim Curley did tell the Knight Commission in May 2009 that supporting broad-based programming is becoming increasingly difficult for Division I programs as competitors put more resources into fewer programs.
He updated that concern more recently when he said broad-based programming will become harder and harder to accomplish unless there is a new revenue stream or unless Division I can get its arms around cost containment.
The revenue concern was relieved a bit in April when the NCAA inked a new multimedia rights agreement with CBS and Turner Broadcasting for $10.8 billion over 14 years, but the fiscal pressures on schools have outlasted previous contracts and may do so again.
In the case of Penn State, Curley said the athletics department is unlikely to back away from what it sees as a good fit with the institutional mission.
“At Penn State, we’ve had a philosophy to be broad-based and provide as many opportunities for as many students as possible,” Curley said. “We want that to represent our university – a large university that provides many opportunities academically across the board for students in general. Our athletics philosophy reflects our university mission. Being broad-based fits nicely with that mission.”
At the same time, Curley said, no magic formula exists to determine what a proper sponsorship rate looks like.
“I’m not sure you can say that if you have a student population of 30,000 that you should have X number of sports,” he said.
Nor can an athletics director’s personal philosophy trump economic forces, said Dutch Baughman, who directs the Division 1A Athletics Directors’ Association.
A study of schools that sponsor a large number of sports likely reveals tradition, Baughman said. And in the past 15 to 20 years, the decisions to either add or drop sports are much more attributed to economic factors or complying with gender equity rather than based on a philosophy.
“Those factors govern decisions more than whether an individual AD believes it would be great to sponsor 30 sports,” Baughman said. “I’ve never once heard anything ever remotely connected to that kind of approach.
“I’ve also never heard an AD after taking a job say that a chance to have that many sports programs attracted him to the opportunity. That’s not been a determining factor in ADs deciding to take one job over another.”
Stanford’s Bob Bowlsby may be an exception. He left 24-sport Iowa for the 35-sport Cardinal. But even he doesn’t know how much of a given school’s sport-sponsorship circumstance is philosophy and how much is practical reality.
“There’s this Holy Grail that everybody is after, and it’s primarily tied to football and men’s basketball,” Bowlsby said. “The coin of the realm for basketball coaches and basketball programs is to be in the NCAA tournament. That’s the mark of success, and there’s plenty of compromise that goes on at a lot of places in order to have a chance at that gold ring.
“There are many examples of places that have gotten good in football and basketball and then put money back into their other sports. But it tends to be an approach of ‘get good in those sports first and then try to do something for the rest of them.’ Stanford has had a long history of broad-based programs and an entrepreneurial approach to making those programs good.”
Whatever the approach, the goal remains to present student-athletes with a quality experience. And at the Division I level, that may mean a fair share of winning – which comes at a price, either economically or philosophically.
“Obviously,” Delany said, “the fewer sports you invest in, the better you can be in those sports. So we have to decide if we can be competitive enough in all of these sports and still meet the broad-based philosophy.
“The bottom line is that as long as Big Ten schools can afford to do what we’re doing, we’ll do it. And if we can’t, we won’t, because I know that the institutions are in no mood to subsidize these teams from the general fund.”
The bottom line for other schools may depend on their own bottom lines. And as long as they meet Division I’s minimum standards, philosophy may not matter.
But it’s an unsettling situation for people like Kretchmar, who say that without participation, there’s no learning, and without learning, there’s no connection between athletics and education.
Kretchmar shared this story from a September 2009 meeting at Penn State: Colombo, the tax-law professor, asked Delany if other conferences across the country shared the Big Ten’s sponsorship philosophy. Delany said it’s an issue of local autonomy; as long as schools meet NCAA minimums, they can sponsor however many more sports they choose.
Colombo took issue with that, saying that charities like the Red Cross can’t go back to the government and say they chose to spend their money on their executives and not much on their mission.
“He said that isn’t a local autonomy choice – there is an obligation to promote the good for which the tax exemption was given,” Kretchmar said. “Does the same notion apply to athletics? It’s an interesting question.”
the fewest sports
the most sports
|Marquette - 14
DePaul - 15
Colorado - 16
Kansas State - 16
Mississippi State - 16
Vanderbilt - 16
|Stanford - 35
Ohio State - 34
Boston College - 31
Penn State - 29
Georgetown - 28
North Carolina - 28
|North Carolina St||11||11||1||23||$45.8|
|St. John's (NY)||7||10||17||$29.7|