Report Says Current Costs Make College Sports 'Unsustainable'

Survey says most universities cannot afford expensive athletics programs in harsh economic climate.

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As the economic climate continues to cause universities to reassess their operating budgets, the current cost of maintaining a college athletics program—especially at the highest levels of competition—is beginning to look unsustainable, according to a report released Monday.

A study conducted by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics found that rising salaries for coaches, increasing costs for maintaining a competitive athletics program, and the growing cultural divide between athletics and academics are straining university budgets. The commission interviewed scores of Football Bowl Subdivision university presidents for the project, and 48 percent of them expressed concern that the current economic outlook will affect the number of varsity sports their institutions can support in the future.

"Athletics are increasingly seen as occupying a position of privilege, which the recession has brought to a harsher spotlight," says Knight Commission Cochairman R. Gerald Turner, who is also the president of Southern Methodist University. "Athletics costs are growing three times faster than elsewhere at institutions."

Presidents told the researchers conducting the survey that they would like to see reform in sports practices, but they don't see themselves as empowered to enact the changes needed. Sweeping changes would require a collective effort among university presidents—something that sounds a lot easier than it actually is—because presidents don't believe their individual actions can affect many others.

So, who could do something about the rising costs of keeping up a winning college sports program? According to the survey, the university presidents don't believe the NCAA has either the ability or the will to address the financial pressures institutions face.

The respondents mentioned one catalyst that might make a difference: the Knight Commission, which did produce some reforms in college sports following scandals in the late 1980s. They're hoping the commission's work will open some lines of communication.

"There's no consensus on solutions for reforms in college athletics," Turner says. "Presidents believe they have limited power. There's little confidence that conferences or the NCAA will address the problems. But there is hope for the Knight Commission in exerting some authority and moral conviction on these findings."

Some issues that the commission agrees need to be reviewed are coaches' salaries, the size of coaching staffs, and the number of games played by nonrevenue-producing sports. The study says that coaches' salaries were identified by 56 percent of university presidents as an area in which their own authority had been eroded by private moneys to compensate coaches. Two thirds of the presidents surveyed agreed that priority should be given to studying policy changes that would reduce the number of sports-specific personnel who aren't coaches or academic support and also cut the number of coaches for revenue-producing sports. More than 60 percent of respondents additionally said priority should be given to studying policy changes that would limit the number of games played by nonrevenue-producing teams.

Two prime examples of big coaching salaries: University of Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari and University of Southern California football coach Pete Carroll. The newly hired Calipari made the most recent splash in college basketball when he inked an eight-year, $31.65 million deal to coach the Wildcats. Carroll made an estimated $4.4 million in the 2006-2007 fiscal year. Big salaries like Calipari's and Carroll's force other schools to open their wallets to hire or extend the hottest coaching commodities in sports. It's a situation comparable to the housing market boom—and it's possibly susceptible to a similar kind of collapse.

Knight Commission Cochairman William Kirwan, who is the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, says that reducing coaches' compensation might make the biggest impact on the financial strains of maintaining an athletics program. He was surprised at the consensus between university presidents and athletics directors on the issue but acknowledged that it's also a sticky issue to approach.