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From a reader: Please just explain to me why a college/university would/should continue supporting sports programs that make no money and, in fact, result in subsidization, which could be argued is to the detriment of the student success mission for nonathlete students?

Great question. I’ll hit a few highlights, point out some of the ways individual institutions might evaluate the cost versus the value of a sports program and provide some articles that may provide further insights.

Most athletic programs are not profitable. Each year the National Collegiate Athletic Association issues an annual report on the finances of intercollegiate athletics. The 2020 report found only 25 Division I programs had revenues exceeding expenses. No Division II or III program had revenues exceeding expenses. There are 1,102 Division I, II and III schools.

Athletic programs may not necessarily benefit student athletes. Recent court cases have focused on how the profitability of sports programs may violate student athletes’ rights. In June 2021, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in NCAA v. Alston et al. that the NCAA could not bar student athletes from being paid. In O’Bannon v. NCAA, the court ruled in favor of O’Bannon regarding using a student athlete’s likeness for commercial purposes. Also, instances exist where student athletes did not receive the education promised. A 2017 report about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill detailed a decades-long practice of providing fake classes for student athletes.

In these instances, and in others, student athletes are viewed as moneymaking tools and exist to serve the institution. Monetizing students’ skills and talents is problematic for many reasons, both legal and ethical. Profitability may not be the best way for an institution to determine whether a sports program exists. Perhaps there are other ways to look at the reader’s question.

If most programs are not profitable, and profitability may come at the expense of student athletes and nonathletes alike, how do institutions weigh the cost of sports programs against their value? Many institutions point to benefits such as access to education for students, student development, co-curricular support, a marketing tool for enrollment and an engagement tool for alumni and friends. But do these benefits apply to all sports programs at all institutions writ large? No, because institutions vary in size, scope, focus and capacity.

  • Access to education. According to the NCAA, approximately 180,000 of 460,000 student athletes received $3.6 billion in scholarships. That sounds wonderful. But how does this compare to the nonathlete student? Individual institutions should analyze if student athletes benefit disproportionately from non–student athletes when it comes to access. Who is benefiting? “College Sports Are Affirmative Action for Rich White Students,” by Saahil Desai, published by The Atlantic on Oct. 23, 2018, presents a view worth considering.
  • Extracurricular opportunities. Numerous studies illustrate the benefits of student participation in extracurricular activities, including increased likelihood of academic achievement and the positive effects on character and social development. Athletics is only one type of extracurricular activity. Institutions should ask how many students are served by sports programs, including student athletes and student spectators, and how much it costs per student. How do those numbers compare to other extracurricular activities? It may be surprising to find other activities engage more students for less money and would provide greater value if invested in more adequately.
  • Co-curricular programs. Athletic programs can be an essential training ground for academic disciplines, including sports medicine, sports management, physical therapy, kinesiology and engineering. So, the question for an individual institution is whether the athletics program is formally tied to academic departments and what is the value to nonathlete students? Does it present hands-on learning opportunities valuable to student success? How many students benefit? Is support given to these disciplines in terms of faculty and instruction?
  • A marketing tool for enrollment. Many elements must align for an institution’s enrollment to benefit from athletic programs. Every institution must ask, what is the best return on investment for this institution? Should an institution invest millions into athletic programs on the promise of a winning season or media airtime? The return on investment might be a better bet for some institutions if the focus was on other enrollment strategies. Brittany Renee Mayes and Emily Giambalvo wrote an interesting piece for The Washington Post on Dec. 6, 2018, “Does sports glory create a spike in college applications? It’s not a slam dunk.
  • Engagement of alumni and friends. The purpose of engagement with alumni and friends is to encourage philanthropic giving. Does your institution have the data necessary to determine if attending or viewing athletic contests is tied to giving—not just giving to athletics but to the school in general? What percentage of support for athletics comes from charitable giving? Without data from your institution, the benefit of engagement via athletics remains theoretical. Institutions should be wary of highly vocal individuals or groups that may represent a minority position and who use hyperbole to influence decisions about sports programs because of possible impact on giving.

Beyond the benefits, some institutions avoid cutting athletic programs because of associated risks. Eliminating programs affect some students and employees severely and often spurs controversy, protests and legal challenges. However, the effects of COVID-19 on institutional budgets have pushed the issue to the forefront in ways unseen before. According to a 2020 report by ESPN, between March 11 and Nov. 6, 2020, 352 NCAA teams were cut from colleges and universities. They presented a view about why the trend was concerning.

On the other hand, The New York Times offered this essay by Tom Farrey on Oct. 13, 2020, about the matter: “Colleges Are Cutting Varsity Sports. That Could Be a Good Thing.

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