Report Describes Big Gaps in Athletic vs. Academic Spending

Public universities in the six most powerful NCAA conferences surpassed $100,000 per player in median annual athletic spending in 2010, a new study has found—six to 12 times the amount those colleges spent per student on academics.

The disparity, highlighted in a report released on Wednesday by the Delta Cost Project, an arm of the nonpartisan American Institutes for Research, occurred as colleges pared back academic programs amid continued cuts in state higher-education budgets. Those economic pressures are likely to force many NCAA institutions to make tough choices in the coming years between sports and academics—or to put more pressure on students to foot a larger share of the athletic department’s bill.

According to the report, “Academic Spending Versus Athletic Spending: Who Wins?,” athletic departments in the Southeastern Conference—which have some of the swankest facilities and best-paid coaches—spent nearly $164,000 per athlete in 2010. That was 12 times as much as those institutions spent per student on academic expenses, and by far the largest gap among major conferences. Across Division I, athletic-department spending per athlete was typically three to six times what the institutions spent to educate the average student.

Over all, athletics costs increased the fastest at the high-spending Football Bowl Subdivision programs, the report says, rising by about 50 percent in a recent five-year stretch, to some $92,000 per player. In contrast, academic spending on those campuses grew less than half as fast.

“Reports like this show we need to do something different in regard to our financial framework in order to enhance the long-term prospects of college sports,” Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said in an interview on Tuesday night.

The Knight Commission, which has worked with the Delta Cost Project in its examination of the spending patterns, has called for the adoption of financial incentives to persuade colleges to control spending on sports. Needless to say, that idea hasn’t gotten much traction. Instead, as conferences have negotiated bigger and bigger media-rights deals (some now in the billions of dollars), colleges have typically ramped up spending.

Only a couple of dozen athletic programs operate in the black, with many major-college programs requiring a substantial institutional subsidy to remain competitive. The less-wealthy FBS programs now spend $11-million to $14-million a year to subsidize sports, the report says—about two to four times as much as those in the top half of the FBS subdivision.

Public universities in the six most powerful conferences—the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, Big 12, and Big East—all spent more than $100,000 per athlete in 2010. In the previous year, four did.

The report also says that:

  • Athletic costs increased at least twice as fast as academic spending, on a per-capita basis, across each of the three Division I subdivisions.
  • Although academic resources were strained after the recent recession, only the FBS programs reined in escalating athletic spending per athlete in 2010; nevertheless, athletic subsidies per athlete continued to increase in all subdivisions despite those financial constraints.
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