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Modern College Athletics Financially Unsustainable, Researchers Say

Can small schools afford to continue offering competitive athletic programs?

By Josh Fendrick, Capital News Service

Modern college athletics is operating under an unsustainable economic model that could lead to dire consequences for small schools in the future, researchers told the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics Tuesday. 

Though television revenue for Bowl Championship Series conference schools has increased tenfold since the mid-1980s, smaller schools are struggling to finance their programs, according to a report presented to the commission.

“The primary issue is financial sustainability, especially for those schools that don’t bring in large amounts of revenue from external sources,” said John J. Cheslock, director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State, who co-authored the study. “They’re seeing subsidies [to athletics] from student fees grow quite rapidly.  They have to determine, ‘Can we continue to increase these things?’ Or should we de-escalate and move down the competitive hierarchy.”

Cheslock made one of six research presentations delivered to the Knight Commission at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington on Tuesday.  The commission’s goal is to “ensure that intercollegiate athletic programs operate within the educational mission of their colleges and universities.”  Although the Commission does not have the power to change anything itself, it does make recommendations to the NCAA. 

In May 2011, the Knight Commission gave out a total of $100,000 in grants to the six research groups that presented their findings Tuesday.

One research group compared the value of “revenue” sports like football or basketball to “non-revenue” sports like gymnastics or baseball.  Another group studied why some schools chose to make major cutbacks in their athletic programs.  

One researcher found that increased pressure to win has prompted a higher turnover rate for college football head coaches, while turnover rates for other university leaders have decreased. 

Between 1992 and 2005, the year before the BCS Championship Game system took effect, 16 percent of university presidents, 15 percent of athletic directors and 16 percent of head football coaches changed each year on average, according to Jennifer Hoffman, assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership in Athletics.  

Since 2006, 15 percent of presidents and 12 percent of athletic directors have changed each year on average, while the turnover rate for coaches is up to 19 percent.With recent scandals at Penn State, Ohio State, USC, and North Carolina, the research initiatives were presented as cries for reform in college sports grow louder.

“I have thought that this is a moment in time, where maybe [reform] could happen,” said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland System and co-chairman of the Knight Commission.  “We are in a state of crisis, and as someone once said, crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

Kirwan said he hoped the research would prompt the NCAA and member schools to make some changes. “We have to think through what are the most rational, relevant, and time sensitive suggestions that have come forth, and try to winnow this down to a manageable agenda,” Kirwan said. “Where we’re headed, we’re going to have 15 to 20 big time athletic programs, and everyone else will have to abandon what they’re doing.”

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