Too Big to Fail?

U of Alabama at Birmingham's flip-flop on ending football illustrates how difficult it is to shut down a program, even a money-losing one with a so-so record.

June 4, 2015

In December, the University of Alabama at Birmingham became the first institution in 20 years to shut down its big-time Division I football program. Citing rising costs and the growing stratification of college sports, Ray Watts, the university’s president, said killing the program would help save Birmingham $50 million over the next decade.

The announcement, however, created an intense backlash on campus, setting off a tumultuous six months for Watts and the university, eventually resulting in a complete reversal of the decision on Monday. The flip-flop, and the pressures that led to it, illustrate just how difficult it is for a university to shut down a major college football program -- even when it’s a struggling middle-tier team like that at Birmingham.

“The university is obviously caving in to alums and boosters who can’t seem to live without their football,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College. “The culture of football is intense in Alabama, which made it much more difficult perhaps than in other places. The fact that they couldn’t do it in Alabama doesn’t mean that another university couldn’t do it. But it’s never going to be easy.”

Only a handful of colleges have ever dropped a big-time football program. In 1939, the University of Chicago abolished its football program and, a few years later, withdrew from the Big Ten Conference, a league it co-founded. Chicago was home to the first recipient of the Heisman Trophy, multiple Big Ten championships and 11 future Hall of Famers. But Robert Hutchins, the university president, wanted the university to be known for its academics, not its athletics, and cut the program. The football team returned in 1969, but as a member of Division III.

The decision forever made Chicago exhibit A of institutions that have gotten by just fine, thank you, without big-time sports, making it a hero to faculty critics and others who bemoan the hold that athletics have on higher education. But Chicago remains the example, in part, because so few others have followed suit.

The few Division I colleges that have dropped their football programs have mostly been smaller institutions with programs that exist outside of the NCAA's football bowl subdivision, the "big-time" tier of college football, such as Northeastern University. The University of the Pacific, a football bowl subdivision institution like UAB, abolished its program in 1995. 

“Chicago was quite the powerhouse, and the matter of its dropping football is the exception that proved the rule,” said Charles Clotfelter, a professor of public policy, economics and law at Duke University. “It happens very rarely. The fact that it almost never happens must mean that football has a lot more value to the people that run universities than you would think. There are benefits, in terms of name recognition and probably in terms of some intangible effect on camaraderie, but there's more to it. How can so many universities and their boards of trustees so consistently make the decision to keep football, and almost nobody ever says it's not worth it? Football having other benefits is just icing on the cake. What they really want is football. Full stop.”

That's especially so, he said, in a football-loving place like Alabama, though Birmingham's football team has always trailed the top programs in the state, which include the University of Alabama’s main campus in Tuscaloosa and Auburn University. UAB pulled the trigger on its football program following an evaluation by CarrSports Consulting, a top adviser to college athletic programs, about what it would take to keep the university’s various teams competitive or make them competitive for national titles.

Officials said Birmingham was already spending $20 million to subsidize its $30 million athletic department, which includes a successful men’s basketball program. About $5 million of those subsidies were student fees, and about $15 million were general institutional funds.

The price tag to improve the Birmingham football team, CarrSports Consulting concluded, was $49 million. That includes $27 million for operations -- football personnel, equipment, technology and new expenses, like providing athletes with more meals and covering the full cost of attendance -- over the next five years and $22 million for new buildings, including new practice facilities and an administrative building.

The money would not have even been enough to build a stadium on the university’s campus. Football games were played at the 72,000-seat Legion Field, where no home game reached an attendance of 30,000 last season. Watts and the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees decided to cut the football program, as well as the rifle and bowling teams.

Though the costs behind the decision would later be contested, the idea of sacrificing a major sport in an effort to get out of the often academically dubious arms race that is college football appealed to some faculty, with certain faculty members applauding the decision.

Those faculty members were mostly at other institutions, however.

Shortly after Watts announced that the football program would be shuttered, the university’s Faculty Senate slapped the president with a vote of no confidence and passed a resolution showing its “full support” for college athletics. Faculty members were not consulted prior to the decision to cut the program, Chad Epps, chair of the Faculty Senate, said this week. Epps said that the senate is “happy to have these three sports back and feels it is in the best interest of the UAB community to continue these athletics programs.” The vote of no confidence will not change, however.

The UAB Faculty Senate's “full support” of college athletics differs from that of senates at institutions like Rutgers University, where faculty members are ardent critics of how athletic programs are greatly subsidized by the university.

“The UAB faculty believes that athletics plays an important role in achieving the mission of UAB and acknowledges that the athletic department and all student athletes contribute to the university in positive ways,” the UAB Faculty Senate's January resolution states. “UAB faculty fully supports NCAA-sanctioned athletics, including football, rifle and bowling.”

The undergraduate student government and the graduate student government adopted similar stances. Few at the university -- among professors or students -- seemed willing to publicly support the president’s original decision. The Faculty Senate said more than two-thirds of its members agreed with the vote of no confidence. Faculty members who were willing to speak to Inside Higher Ed in support of shutting down the program did so only anonymously, and even then the support was conditional on the original evaluation being correct.

“If his task force sees that football is losing a lot of money and it’s not going to get any better, then why would you want it?” one professor said of Watts at the time. “Just because we’re at a school in Alabama we want football?”

As time went on, drawbacks to the plan emerged, as did questions about the accuracy of the initial assessment.

The university would have to continue providing existing coaching salaries and scholarships for years. A deal with the University of Tennessee called for UAB to pay $925,000 if it pulled out of a planned season opener next fall. Conference USA bylaws dictated that the conference drop the university entirely, as every member has to play football, meaning the university would have to part ways with the $1 million a year it was receiving through Conference USA’s broadcast deal with Fox Sports.

It would also mean the remaining teams would have to find a new conference to play in.

“That would likely mean more travel, and more expenses,” said Mark Nagel, a professor of sports and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina. “In addition to losing some of the financial benefits the program could provide, there were these other expenses coming from losing the football team. It was a bad decision that didn’t take into account the full benefits the program was providing.”

The benefits to which Nagel refers were outlined in a separate report last month -- one that was at odds with the university’s original assessment.

That study says that the university’s decision to cut its football program for financial reasons was “ill-advised,” as the program was actually making money for the university, and that surpluses are expected to increase over the next few years. The study also criticized the university's elimination of the rifle and bowling teams, saying that the sports at least broke even.

“We find that the three sports in question did not cost the university anywhere near the $3.75 million indicated on UAB's accounting statements,” wrote Dan Rascher and Andy Schwarz, authors of the study and partners at OSKR, an economic analysis firm. “Instead, after making the sort of adjustments suggested by the economics literature, we conclude that the three sports were effectively break-even to slightly positive. Football and bowling showed a modest positive return for 2013-14, the last year for which complete data was available. Rifle showed a deficit, but the three-sport balance was positive to the tune of $75,000.”

OSKR was originally hired by the university to conduct the study, but its work was canceled over conflict of interest concerns. Rascher and Schwarz were consultants for the plaintiffs in Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which paved the way for colleges to offer full cost-of-attendance scholarships. The university had cited the expense of providing full cost of attendance as one of the reasons to shutter the program.

The researchers finished their report with funding from boosters instead, while UAB commissioned yet another study. UAB’s decision to bring back the program partly relied on that third report, written by College Sports Solutions. It found that the university would indeed lose $3 million more a year with a football program than without, but that the benefits a football team brings -- increased enrollment, donations and other revenue -- would likely make up for that.

This report was more in line with the university’s original assessment, but it concluded that bringing the program back was as equally a “viable option” as letting it stay dead.

And so, with a report of UAB’s own commission saying such a step was viable -- and with the original decision lacking any meaningful support from the university's undergraduate students, graduate students, alumni, donors and neighbors in the city of Birmingham -- the football program will be revived.

“UAB is good case study of how once you have a team reach a certain level, it becomes very difficult to drop it,” Nagel said. “Once you reach that midmajor to high-major level, the marketing attention, the revenues it generates and the interest from the community it generates make it very difficult to justify getting rid of it.”

It will not be easy resuscitating a program that’s been dead for six months. Most players left the university to play elsewhere, as have members of the coaching staff. Low attendance is likely to still be an issue. For most of the last five years, the average attendance at UAB home games has been just above 15,000 -- the minimum required by the NCAA to remain at the football bowl subdivision level. Watt said on Monday that the backlash to his decision and the resulting rush of fund-raising pledges showed “never-before-seen" support for the football team. The program’s success could rely on just how committed those who rallied to keep the program alive are to ensuring it stays that way.

The university is counting on students, alumni, the city of Birmingham and other supporters to not only show up for the games, but also to come up with the $17.2 million the university said it still needs to remain competitive -- an amount the donors have pledged to provide. Last year, the university said, the athletic department only received $2 million in private donations. Jim Bakken, a spokesman for the university, said the pledges are set up as “legally binding gift agreements.” The university said on Monday that it will maintain, but not exceed, its current level of institutional support to athletics.

For now, football lives again at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Unlike other football programs that have returned from the grave, UAB is expected to remain in Division I and to rejoin its conference.

“This commercial college sports thing is a big deal to the people who are running it,” said Clotfelter, the Duke professor. “Whether faculty or presidents like it or not, that's the reality. That's one of the things that episodes like this emphasize. Our universities certainly do research and teaching and serve students. But they also do commercial sports.”

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Jake New

Jake New, Reporter, covers student life and athletics for Inside Higher Ed. He joined the publication in June 2014 after writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education and covering education technology for eCampus News. For his work at the Chronicle covering legal disputes between academic publishers and critical librarians, he was awarded the David W. Miller Award for Young Journalists. His work has also appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times, Indianapolis Monthly, Slate, PBS, Times Higher Education and the Australian. Jake studied journalism at Indiana University, where he was editor-in-chief of the Indiana Daily Student.

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