The PAC-12 announced an enormous media deal this week that’s worth a reported $22 million per school per year. The Big 10 and SEC have monster TV deals in place that virtually ensure profitability for their member athletic departments for the near future. That’s life on the top of the FBS division, and there’s no doubt that football is the key driver of both revenue and expenses.
This diary is about the other half. The financial straights of the lower tier of FBS, specifically the MAC, Sun Belt, and post Boise State WAC are also largely driven by football. Unfortunately for them, the train has fallen off of a cliff instead of chugging towards the land of monocles and gold toilets. These schools are reduced to selling home games to artificially increase attendance numbers and playing body bag games to pad revenue.
Specifically, this is about Eastern Michigan football and EMU athletics. What, if any, benefits does the school derive and what are the costs associated with those benefits? Why do they field teams at all on the D-1 level?
College sports have a purpose. The NCAA says that its purpose and the larger point of intercollegiate athletics is to promote things like sportsmanship, integrity, the pursuit of athletic and academic excellence, respect and leadership. These are all good things to promote and I believe athletics can help cultivate those qualities. However, a good club program or the intramural programs that most universities run with student fees can accomplish the same goals and provide much greater access than D-1 athletics. Thus, in my mind, schools must derive some other benefit from D-1 athletics than simply promoting certain values in its athletes—of which Eastern has about 465.
Every FBS school should probably ask itself what benefits it derives from big-time football. It’s a shockingly expensive undertaking, can give the school tons of press (both good and bad), can generate enormous revenue, and can be a significant drain on student funds. It’s easy for the University of Michigan to make a cost-benefit analysis for its football team and athletic department in general. It generates many millions of dollars for the athletic department and is a self-sustaining enterprise. Sure, it’s attached to the school, but it costs the school nothing. The Board of Regents never needs to worry about eliminating a student program to fund football.
Eastern Michigan has a tougher time. Last year, EMU’s athletic expenses were $24.64 million, a whopping 9.2% of the school's General Fund. For a little perspective, there are about 23000 students enrolled at EMU, of which about 2% are intercollegiate athletes. They use their share of the 90.8% of the budget spent on items other than athletics, but 9.2% of the budget is used exclusively to support athletics. Sure, some of that $24 million comes out of TV deals, sponsorship, and ticket sales, but the database shows that to be only about $1.7 million. Everything else comes from the General Fund in some way. By the way, tuition went up 3.8% in 2009-10 at EMU.
However, EMU could still justify athletics if the non-monetary benefits made athletics worthwhile for the school. I think sports teams at U of M make valuable contributions to the student body. Aside from pride, I firmly believe that the Michigan diaspora—I see shirts everywhere—stays engaged with the school in large part due to the visibility of the sports teams. This has benefits for job seeking grads, networking alums, and helps donations to the school. Maybe this is the case at EMU too, but it doesn’t help too much. They only received about $3 million in gifts last year. Even if all of those were directly the result of athletics, there are still almost $20 million that the school gives each year to athletics. People don’t go to games and EMU athletics aren’t on TV unless they’re getting drilling by a Big 10 team in September.
The world has changed. Regardless of why (and let’s not get into it), Michigan doesn’t have money to waste. Why is a public university spending almost 10% of their General Fund on entities that only directly benefit 2% of the student body and don’t produce discernable benefits for the student body, alumni base, or school? Michigan and Michigan State are different. Their athletic departments aren’t a choice of resource allocation for the school. If the department closes, the money disappears. If EMU closes its athletic department, there are over $20 million, by my count, that can be reallocated to improving education, facilities, or even lowering tuition.
Why can’t EMU de-emphasize athletics and expand its club offerings? They could bus to CMU, WMU, Northern Michigan, Toledo, etc and play at a rented high school field on Saturdays. The players could work out at a student gym instead of a team gym. The same could be done with other sports. Just as many students could play, but for millions less. If I was a Regent, I’d ask why.