The Athletics Tax

The gap between the haves and have-nots in big-time college athletics has widened dramatically, according to a new report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity analyzing institutional subsidy of sports programs.

June 1, 2010

The gap between the haves and have-nots in big-time college athletics has widened dramatically, according to a new report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity analyzing institutional subsidy of sports programs.

“Rich, famous and athletically well-known schools have only been trivially impacted at the institutional level by the explosion in [intercollegiate athletics] costs, while a significant number of schools that are, on average, poorer, less prestigious, and athletically more marginal have been clobbered,” the report states.

The report compiles data on 99 public institutions within the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) from all of its 11 conferences. As the data were mined via public records requests, the report’s calculations do not include any private institutions.

Though few, if any, athletics directors would agree with its wording, the report frames institutional subsidy of intercollegiate athletics programs as a “tax imposed on the other dimensions of the institutions which house them.” Some institutions have explicit, line-item student fees that fund athletics, and other institutions make allocations for athletics after student fees are received.

To show how this “tax” has grown in recent years, the report calculates it in many ways – cost per full-time equivalent student, as a percentage of an institution’s tuition revenue and as a percentage of an institution’s “core” expenses ("total operating expenses minus hospital expenses, auxiliary enterprise expenses and independent operations expenses").

Measures of "Athletics Tax" in Division I FBS, 2004-5 and 2008-9

Taxation Measure 2004-5 2008-9 Growth
Subsidy per FTE $395 $506 28.1 %
Subsidy as % of tuition revenue 7.48 % 8.33 % 11.4 %
Subsidy as % of total core expenses 1.93 % 2.12 % 9.84 %

There is great disparity in the degree of institutional subsidy for intercollegiate athletics programs among the conferences. At one end, nearly three-fourths of the revenues generated by intercollegiate athletics comes from institutional subsidy in the Mid-American Conference – which includes institutions such as Ohio University, whose Faculty Senate recently voted to limit the institutional subsidy given to its athletics program. At the other, only 3.6 percent of athletics revenues are from institutional subsidy in the Big Ten Conference – which includes institutions such as the University of Michigan, one of only 13 public programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision to generate a profit in 2008.

Measures of "Athletics Tax" by Conference, 2008-9

Conference Subsidy as % of Athletics Operating Revenue "Athletics Tax" per FTE "Athletics Tax" as % of Tuition and Fee Revenue
Atlantic Coast Conference 13.3 % $327 3.9 %
Big 12 Conference 6.0 % $130 1.6 %
Big East Conference 25.6 % $491 6.2 %
Big Ten Conference 3.6 % $67 0.7 %
Conference USA 46.2 % $697 13.8 %
Mid-American Conference 72.3 % $915 14.5 %
Mountain West Conference 43.0 % $1,177 15.5 %
Pacific-10 Conference 12.7 % $242 3.2 %
Southeastern Conference 5.4 % $168 2.7 %
Sun Belt Conference 60.7 % $559 14.1 %
Western Athletic Conference 47.5 % $718 17.3 %

Using the percentage of an institution's students receiving Pell Grants and its total core expenses per full-time equivalent student as proxies for student wealth and institutional wealth respectively, the report shows that the conferences with the greatest "wealth" have the lowest institutional subsidy for intercollegiate athletics, or "athletics tax" as the authors call it.

Evidence of a Regressive "Athletics Tax," 2008-9

Conference % of Students Receiving Pell Grants Total Core Expenses per FTE Average "Athletics Tax" per FTE
Atlantic Coast Conference 14.87 % $38,426 $327
Big 12 Conference 16.42 % $27,622 $130
Big East Conference 23.96 % $32,100 $491
Big Ten Conference 16.44 % $41,631 $67
Conference USA 34.54 % $28,888 $697
Mid-American Conference 26.95 % $18,141 $915
Mountain West Conference 21.86 % $42,481 $1,177
Pacific-10 Conference 22.93 % $40,464 $242
Southeastern Conference 19.13 % $31,046 $168
Sun Belt Conference 30.41 % $24,472 $718
Western Athletic Conference 30.47 % $24, 472 $718
AVERAGE 23.45 % $30,893 $499

To illustrate the difference between a have and have-not in big-time college athletics, the report compares Eastern Michigan University, from the Mid-American Conference, with the University of Michigan, from the Big Ten Conference.

"Both institutions share a nearly identical geographical location," the report notes. "In fact, Rynearson Stadium on the campus of EMU is an entire 6.3 miles away from the Big House in Ann Arbor. An accomplished cross-country runner from either school could run between the stadiums in around 30 minutes. Yet, the contrasts between the two institutions are remarkable. At EMU the students on average are poorer with nearly 39 percent on Pell Grants, triple the proportion of those at the University of Michigan. However, the huge $20 million subsidy at EMU for sports is equal to nearly 16 percent of tuition revenue. One could say there is a 16 percent [intercollegiate athletics] tuition tax at EMU. By contrast, at the relatively well-to-do (not only in terms of student body but also in terms of university endowment) University of Michigan, that [intercollegiate athletics] tax is zero."

Arguing that "universities will not unilaterally disarm" from such athletics spending, the report recommends, among other suggestions, that state governments forbid "institutions receiving state funds to subsidize [intercollegiate athletics] more than, say, five percent of tuition revenues, or two percent of all core expenditures." It also suggests that university presidents within conferences "agree on a conference rule on expenditures or institutional subsidies."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top