San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

February 19th, 2008
Pain, gain at Texas State?

Points: A Sports Column
Editor at Large

The students at Texas State University approved a fee increase last week for the purpose of supporting big-time football, thereby encumbering future student generations with a feast or famine scenario.

It’s not right or wrong. It’s not bad or good. It’s feast or famine. That’s major college football, which separates winners from losers like no other business – and don’t fool yourselves, it is a business. If you’re going to play this game, that’s the first reality you need to internalize. It’s serious business involving big money and gains or losses that run to multiples.

Do not expect an understanding nod when you rhapsodize about college football’s enhancement of the educational experience. Expect nothing less than ridicule and derisive belly laughter, because that’s the biggest joke in sports or academia. College football is about marketing the university first, second and third.

A well-turned college football program places the university’s name in higher profile, attracts students to the university and stimulates contributions from the alumni. Everything else is smoke and mirrors, including the true underlying motive, which is that big college football is fun. But fun for who? And when?

Colleges began promoting football about 100 years ago as a draw for students, since institutions offering “campus life” held an edge over those that merely produced solid education and prestigious degrees. Perhaps, listening to the present discussion about football at Texas State, that sounds familiar.

By the 1920s, college football helped feed America’s burgeoning mass culture and grew into such an obsessive force on campus and society that universities soon faced serious decisions. College football escalated into an arm’s race.

The tail started wagging the dog. The popular imagination began seeing the university as a pretext for spectator sports. Institutions wanting to pride themselves on training minds were judged for assembling football teams that could crack heads.

On one hand, football basically built Notre Dame, which, by Knute Rockne’s marketing genius, eased the path for Catholicism in America. On the other hand, Ivy League schools found football too intrusive and refused steps to stay competitive on a national level. The University of Chicago discontinued its successful program in the 1930s, saying football compromised the university’s mission.

Universities recruited students who could play football, but couldn’t hack academic work. Alumni pressured coaches so intensely to win that academic performance declined to secondary status. Boosters routinely pay players under the table or set them up with phony jobs in the interest of winning.

College football now is so large, so unwieldy, so impossible for universities to control that we’ll never see a national championship tournament. Administrators simply can’t monitor the activities of their football programs under the present circumstances, and a tournament would raise the stakes so high that all hope for oversight would be lost forever. It speaks directly to the absurd influence of college football that college-educated commentators can’t grasp that simple reality.

The stakes for winning college football programs fly off the charts. The most avaricious oil company or consumer credit bank might claim 25 percent of its revenues as profit. But a college football program operating in the black by mere percentages is a weakling. If your college football program isn’t making multiples on its expenses, you almost can’t matter.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education, the University of Texas spent $17.6 million on football and generated $63.8 million in football revenues for the reporting period ending on Aug. 31, 2007. That 3.6 to 1 ratio of revenues to expenditures is almost the rule among the traditional powers.

On the flip side, once you get out of the big leagues, we find places like North Texas. For the reporting year ended on Aug. 31, 2007, North Texas lost multiples on football, spending $4.2 million against revenues of $1.4 million. Attempting to turn that around, North Texas made a coaching change entering last season, hiring Todd Dodge away from Southlake Carroll. Dodge made an immediate impact on fund raising, but not on winning.

A Conference-USA school, which is the level to which Texas State should aspire, spends around $7 million on football. Some programs can balance those expenditures with revenues, and others can’t. The question at Texas State is how to make it work.

For the reporting year ending last Aug 31, Texas State ran its athletic department slightly better than even – $13.3 million in revenues against $12.6 million in expenditures. Student fees deserve nearly all of the credit, and football deserves none. Texas State football generated a mere $639,253 after expenditures of $2,346,453.

Even at its lower level of large college football, Texas State spent nearly four times the money it generated to line up and kick off. Now, Texas State is looking to basically triple its football expenditure when it’s already losing four times what it makes. Sounds like a pretty risky proposition.

But the students are kicking in with more fees. Last week’s election result means students will double their fees for the athletic department to $10 million annually in 2012-13. If all that extra $5 million goes to football, then Texas State has the $7 million for a Conference-USA budget in today’s world. By 2012, probably, the requirement will come closer to $10 million.

If Texas State quadruples its football budget to approach $10 million in five years, can it also increase football revenues 12-15 fold to break even or stay fairly close? What’s at stake for other athletic programs if Texas State starts losing $5 million per year on football?

The University of South Florida started a football program in 1996 and bled money for years. Finally, South Florida broke even in 2005. The true reward came in mid-October 2007, when South Florida climbed to No. 2 in the national rankings. South Florida made $9.2 million in football revenues against $7.6 million in expenditures for the reporting year ending last Aug. 31. Last season, South Florida probably did much better. That program appears to be on its way.

South Florida worked with certain geographic advantages, including a populous Tampa area without a major college program nearby. Texas State might be able to leverage San Antonio as its major market, but it will always operate in UT’s shadow.

The risks are huge, and the rewards also are huge. If the will exists among Texas State students, alums, administrators and financial supporters, then no one else can argue against the university shooting for the college football big time.

But the path is strewn with years of big money losses. Going for the college football big time means you know that going in. Get your stomach ready. It’s going to hurt for a while.

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