In Time of Budget Austerity, Athletics Programs Need a Reset

Grapevine, Tex. — Just after Shaquille O’Neal entertained attendees here on Wednesday, the opening day of the NCAA convention, and minutes before the sensational story broke about a Notre Dame football star mixed up in a bizarre hoax, Jeffrey H. Orleans found a small window of time to deliver an important message.

Speaking at the NCAA’s Scholarly Colloquium, Mr. Orleans, a former director of the Ivy League, pulled together data from a series of reports about the dire state of higher-education finances to reflect on the likely challenges ahead for athletics departments as they try to rein in spending and remain relevant on their campuses.

“The economic model of college sport assumes commitment of substantial institutional nonathletic resources at a time when those resources are being throttled,” Mr. Orleans, a senior associate with Alden & Associates, said to the group of more than 100 scholars and athletics officials. “To retain those funds, we have to understand how badly they have been damaged.”

Reducing institutional financial support, which the vast majority of NCAA colleges rely on, would lead to diminishing experiences for college athletes. And under a set of financial circumstances that Mr. Orleans described as “a catalog of gloom,” it would seem inevitable that at least some of that support will go away.

All of that is likely, Mr. Orleans seemed to suggest, unless athletics programs begin to make a stronger case for themselves as viable and essential parts of the college, with a relevance beyond the playing field.

The overall financial picture he described for colleges and universities was indeed gloomy. Students’ carrying a trillion-dollar debt burden. Colleges’ suffering from historic declines in state and local appropriations that can’t be recouped by increases in tuition revenue. Across higher education, he said, we have a “new status quo of financial weakness.”

In that environment, some people believe that the use of what could be academic or student-aid money to subsidize athletics is misguided and should be rethought.

While many programs may muddle through without significant change, Mr. Orleans urged athletics officials to make a fresh case for the value of their programs.

“If we truly believe that athletics has developmental benefits for the athletes who compete, we owe it to them to take the initiative,” he said. Programs need to show that athletics deserves support because it is educationally relevant—”not merely because another school in the conference just bought out its football coach’s contract.”

I caught up with Mr. Orleans after his session and asked him how athletics departments could reset expectations and give more careful consideration to their place at the table. Also, I wondered, how do they make a better case for themselves?

First, Mr. Orleans suggested, athletics programs must be more transparent about their operations. College leaders, he said, also have to be “brutally honest” about programs that operate in the red, showing a greater willingness to make athletic directors pay a consequence when they don’t stick to the budget.

We all know those types of decisions don’t help programs punch tickets to big bowl games and Final Four weekend—the Promised Land many athletic directors are shooting for.

“Then redefine the Promised Land,” Mr. Orleans told me, “as financial solvency.”

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