Public records deflate myths about "profitable" college athletics

A team of Washington Post reporters has been putting on a clinic for using public records to examine the workings of often-secretive college athletic departments, and they’re discovering that even traditional powerhouse schools that regularly contend for championships — including Florida State, UCLA, Auburn and Wisconsin — spend more money on sports than they take in.

The deficit is borne by rank-and-file students, who are charged as much as $2,000 in athletic fees tacked onto every year’s tuition.

It’s not that college sports don’t generate money. The Post‘s review of records obtained from 48 major-college athletic powers found that revenue has grown from $2.6 billion to $4.5 billion since 2004 — but spending has grown proportionately right along with it.

Improved stadiums, weight rooms and practice facilities are one culprit for the increase; another is salaries. Coaches and athletic directors have built a well-paid support structure that at times resembles a corporate CEO’s, including a $252,000 “chief of staff” assisting the head football coach at Clemson.

The Post‘s series, by reporters Will Hobson and Steven Rich, debuted Nov. 23, shortly after an equally thorough and detailed report by The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The $10 Billion Sports Tab,” published in partnership with the Huffington Post. The title refers to the $10.3 billion that the 201 universities competing at the highest level (Division I) have poured over the past five years into propping up their athletic programs above-and-beyond what the teams generate.

The Chronicle found that athletic departments at colleges from Rutgers to Northern Illinois to Georgia State are dependent on subsidies for well over half of their annual operating expenses — and that, ironically, the financial burden on students tends to be highest at schools with the least interest in athletics (and the least successful teams), because they sell fewer tickets and souvenirs.  

This is a story begging for college journalists to localize: How much are students paying in athletic fees, how has that changed over the years, and where are athletic departments spending all of that revenue? The Chronicle has made it easy by creating a searchable table with downloadable financial reports for each of the last five years filed by every major-college program. 

For the national perspective, the NCAA publishes aggregate data online going back to 2004 for Division I. The NCAA’s own data confirms that colleges sports have become less self-sufficient, raising 71.3 percent of what they spend and relying on their schools for the rest, down from 76.9 percent a decade ago.

Any public university should readily release details of its athletic revenues and expenditures in compliance with state open-records laws, and since the data already must be gathered to satisfy NCAA requirements, production should be prompt and without objection or significant cost.