Columns » Max Brantley

Whew, Pig$

The $95 million that rolls into the University of Arkansas's athletic department is by far the biggest of any single department at the UA.

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BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson

Arguing about overemphasis of college sports is about as worthwhile as arguing abortion and guns. Few are in the middle. Either you think no price is too great for gridiron (or minor sport) glory or you believe sports spending is hopelessly out of control.

I'm behind Door No. 2, but have little to offer beyond hand-wringing.

Consider: Last weekend, the University of Georgia fired Mark Richt, who's averaged 10 wins a season over 15 years in Athens. He was due for a raise to $4 million a year, about on par with Arkansas's Bret Bielema, who finally recorded a better than break-even regular season in his third year as Razorback head coach.

The Washington Post last week rolled out an investigative project that showed the top 48 college sports powers (these include Arkansas) had doubled their income in the last 10 years, to $4.5 billion. And yet the majority of those schools still managed to operate at a deficit. A million-dollar athletic director, a $4 million head coach and a heavy debt load from the unending facilities race does make it hard to balance budgets, even when your business is tax-free and further advantaged by the tax deductions available to those who contribute to "the program."

Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long responded on Twitter to a question on the Post article by noting that the UA department operates in the black (by about $200,000 on a $90 million budget last year). Unlike at some major universities, UA students aren't assessed a charge to defray athletic costs. Also, the athletic department is budgeted to contribute about $2.3 million of its $97.5 million 2015-16 revenue to general UA operations, a bit more than a 2 percent return on the revenue stream athletics gets as a result of its valuable franchise at a land grant public university.

Athletic departments today have even less obligation to general operations because of the impact of outside money. UA budgets $34 million in outside income from the NCAA and TV contracts, plus another $6.2 million from sale of commercial rights and another $3 million from fees for using the University of Arkansas trademarks. Of course trademark revenue goes to athletics. Ever seen anyone wearing a Go Hog Poets T-shirt?

The $95 million that rolls into the athletic department is by far the biggest of any single department at the UA. The Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences gets $49.8 million. The state legislature appropriates only $127 million in general revenue to the UA. Yes. Athletics brings in a sum at the UA ever closer to what taxpayers provide.

The Washington Post article noted that complaints about the drain of women's sports on college budgets are disingenuous. Of course. At the UA, football costs $23 million and accounts for about $27 million in ticket revenue, the only sport that doesn't operate at a deficit. Men's basketball costs $7.3 million, but produces $6.4 million. Men's baseball costs $2.8 million, but reaps $1.8 million in ticket revenue. Every other sport is a loser.

Football wags the dog. So when LSU talks of firing Les Miles, with a record similar to that of Richt at Georgia, or a school fires a Richt, the colleges are acting more like businesses than some cosseted CEOs in the private sector. Produce or perish, and a winning record isn't enough. In the biggest of big-time colleges, an SEC championship is expected with some frequency. Nice guys who don't win eventually get bought out. Jeff Long has been patient with Bret Bielema, who is a likable cuss, but really: Will another 7-5 season be acceptable for a $4 million coach when 10-win coaches like Miles who've won national championships are on the chopping block?

Jeff Long also boasted that Razorback athletes have a cumulative 3.2 GPA. Good for them. But a 4.0 would be no job protection for a perennial 4-7 football coach. Nor should it be at today's rates.

I don't suggest it's time to de-emphasize sports. I might as well call for an end to keg parties. I can only wonder where revenues will be in 10 years and what new $200 million facility will be the must-have of 2025.

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