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Time to Cut Sports Subsidies at Public Universities

By: Nick Zaiac - @NickZaiac - Nov 17, 2015, 11:48 am
When education funds are scarce, expensive football programs should be the first thing to go.. (Matthew Tosh)
When education funds are scarce, expensive football programs should be the first thing to go. (Matthew Tosh)

EspañolIn recent years, the US public university system has been in chaos. No, I’m not talking about student activists’ outbursts over issues of free speech on their campuses, as noteworthy as they are. I’m talking about the the funding of the university system as a whole.

As states have faced fiscal pressure from rising pension, infrastructure, and medicaid costs, we’ve seen them sacrifice funding for their university systems in budget cuts. To account for this, universities must make spending cuts or increase revenues from tuition, fees, and other sources, such as alumni donations.

Administrators face hard choices. Keeping costs low matters to students, and cuts to academic and administrative staff or university amenities are unpopular. But cuts must come from somewhere.

However, there is an obvious place for universities to begin cutting costs: their normally bloated athletic programs. Sports subsidies, in fact, have cost US public universities more than US$10.3 billion over the last 5 years according to a report by the Chronicle for Higher Education and the Huffington Post. This is a fairly damning indictment of public university sports spending. It notes that subsidies to athletic programs have increased over time, much of the rise coming from athletic fees charged to students.

Athletic fees at public universities are a problem since these are used to fund a large percentage of the athletics program’s budget. The case for any subsidies at all is dubious. If very few people attend games so that not even a modest percentage of a program’s costs can be covered, should students be forced to pay for the team’s upkeep? At the median public university, students and the administration provide between 60 and 70 percent of the athletics budget.

Whatever sports boosters may say, a sports subsidy at that level makes no sense for most mid-tier state schools. The University of Alabama at Birmingham recently made headlines with its proposal to end its Division I football program due to its high costs. The proposal has been scrapped since boosters gave the program a reprieve for a few years, but we should expect other universities to follow Birmingham’s lead as pressure to cut costs mounts. Expensive programs simply aren’t viable when dollars for educating students, the universities’ core function, are scarce.

Sports boosters’ arguments are increasingly absurd. They allude to the prestige, distinction, and publicity that only a top-tier football program can provide. What they fail to acknowledge is that all of these things can be done by other means, ignoring whether such subsidies are necessary at all.

After all, not every public school will be a household name outside its home state. Universities could easily end the sports subsidy and use money previously earmarked for other school functions  hiring better or more professors, for instance  by incorporating the fees into tuition to make costs more transparent for students. Or they could lower costs, using the low fees to lure better students.

If the school really needed publicity, buying billboards or radio commercials could easily be cheaper than the current subsidy to sports. If they want prestige, they could use revenues to make the campus a better environment for learning. Or they could use the reallocated fees to create research centers and hire dedicated faculty.

Additional mentions in academic journals certainly serve the public more than additional mentions in the sports pages of regional papers. There are far more direct ways to provide everything sports claim to provide, either with lower costs, or with a more direct, measurable link to outcomes that matter to regular students, alumni, and taxpayers.

Median public universities should note that sports programs’ subsidies fall on the backs of students, many of whom get little value from the programs. Sports do not provide an infinite level of prestige, distinction, or publicity. Universities should assess how they spend each and every dollar in their budgets.

With sports programs’ high costs and unclear benefits, it would make sense for more universities to rein in their subsidies to athletics. If students are willing to buy tickets to see their home team play, great. But if they’re not, there’s no better case for a sports subsidy than for any other campus activity.

Nick Zaiac Nick Zaiac

Nick Zaiac is a public-policy researcher in Washington, DC. He also serves as a policy analyst at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. His column, The DC Leviathan focuses on the often-ignored bureaucratic agencies, from the Department of the Interior to the General Services Administration. He has been published in the Baltimore Sun, City AM, CapX, and other outlets. Follow @NickZaiac.