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November 16, 1999


The Gaping Maw of the Bottomless Pit: The High Cost of Football

by Tom Brennan

Recently, an ad-hoc committee of the University of South Alabama (USA) Faculty Senate, chaired by Dr. Richmond Brown, produced a hard-hitting report on the question of football at USA. The report focuses on the most important issue: “Division I football is a costly endeavor and in our current financial climate, the short-term and long-term, direct and indirect costs of football demand the closest possible scrutiny.” Brown states the senate insists “that the question [of football] receive the scrutiny it deserves, and that the faculty play an active role in deliberating the question.” Moreover, citing a multi- year study of intercollegiate athletics commissioned by the Knight Foundation, Brown points out its principal recommendation was that “‘the president [of a college or university] cannot be a figurehead whose leadership applies elsewhere in the university but not in the athletics department.’” “‘Trustees should explicitly endorse and reaffirm presidential authority in all matters of athletic governance.” The Commission also specified an important role for faculty: “The Faculty is responsible for academic standards and protecting the curriculum” and faculty athletics representatives are to serve ‘”as guardians of the academic interest.’”

The way things stand now, presidents and their faculties have little say in how athletics programs take shape and take over huge portions of the budgetary pie. The case of football at USA is not likely to be different given the make up of the current Board of Trustees at USA. That board is dominated by the football majority on it, and has already shown in its cavalier disregard for due process in the hiring of Gordon Moulton as the USA president and in its frivolous lawsuit against the USA Foundation that it cares not a whit about what the faculty’s role ought to be. Given also the stridency of the football fanatics among alumni, students, the athletic department, the media and civic and business leaders, it is not likely that the question of football will get the scrutiny it deserves, nor is it likely that the faculty at USA will play an active role in deliberating the question of football. The USA Faculty Senate has made a valiant bid to play an active role, but when push comes to shove, their report will be shoved under the rug.

Deliberation is out of the question! Huge volumes of foul-smelling gas from the guts of the football boosters is clouding the atmosphere. Well, St. Paul was right -- we see through a cloud darkly. That cloud grew darker recently when the Athletics Task Force Steering Committee (Mayer Mitchell, Ken Kvalheim, Joe Gottfried, and Mike Gottfried -- Joe’s brother) of the USA Board of Trustees decided unanimously to hire a consulting firm “to evaluate the feasibility of adding Division I-A football to USA’s intercollegiate athletic program.” This stacked committee with the sham study it will produce has obviously decided to go for football and go for the most costly kind -- Division I-A. We learn from Joe Gottfried that this illuminating study will be done by Carr and Associates for a mere pittance -- $36,000 -- and that it will be financed “from outside sources and no university money will be involved in the project” (Mob.Reg., 11/3/99). Trustee Ken Kvalheim, chair of the Athletics Task Force, said to a reporter for The Vanguard, “To get real numbers, you need a good feasibility study. We want to be realistic and make sure the support is out there.” Yeah, sure Ken! And hell will freeze over before you’ll entertain a “realistic” study.

Aside from wondering about who the outside sources are (maybe Mayer is ponying up again), one wonders about how a mere pittance will pay for anything other than another glowing report ready at hand in the data bank of Carr and Associates. The USA Senate can insist until it’s blue in the face, but it’s not likely that a committee of trustees and two football brothers -- Mike badly needs a job -- will have authorized a real study of the question of football. A real study of Division I-A football would be too damaging because it would reveal the tremendous costs involved in starting down and staying on the Division I-A road -- immediate costs and long-term costs. The Carr study is not likely to be anything more than a feel-good report, and Gottfried already has one of those in his packet of propaganda, titled “There Will Never Be A Better Time For Football At South Alabama Than 1999.” It’s a report done by the buoyant Semoon Chang larded with stats plucked from thin air to tout the commercial benefits of the “multiplier effect” of football in Mobile. Folks it’s all legerdemain -- a pulling of rabbits out of the hat. Chang, it seems, is forever doing puff reports for the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, for which doubtless he is amply remunerated, and his study for Gottfried is out of date; it’s geared to 1994 and only shows the putative benefits of football but none of the real costs of foisting football on USA.

But who knows, maybe our sports-proned city fathers will take some more money out of the taxpayers’ pockets to subsidize football at USA. They did it to build the Convention Center, to renovate the white elephant called Ladd-Peebles Stadium, and they did it to build a ballpark. As Gregory Bresiger points out in his article “Stadium Socialism,” “elected officials around the country are ready to do almost anything to attract or keep major league teams in their towns” (The Free Market, Nov. 1999), so why not for football at USA? Jesse Ventura, Minnesota’s governor, got it right -- bless his heart -- when he said “that neither the state nor the city nor any other unit of government should spend any money on funding yet another municipal ballpark or providing a taxpayer subsidy to professional ball teams and their media flunkies” (Ibid.).

And folks, the bill for Division I-A sports is now immense and will only get bigger in the future. To give you an idea of the real costs, we can take for an example the case of the University of Wisconsin, a Division I-A school. In a recent story in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “A Look at the Future Bottom Line of Big-Time Sports,” Welch Suggs says “there is one certainty for administrators of big-time sports programs: If you want to compete at the highest level [that’s clearly the aspiration of the Gottfried brothers], it’s going to cost you a lot of money” (11/12/99). Suggs bases this assertion on two reports on the finances of the athletic department at the University of Wisconsin. One report, a state audit, raised concerns about the department’s debts and another report, the department’s own annual budget, predicts that budget will grow from $39.6-million in 1999-2000 to $50.5-million in 2004-05. Of course football has been taking the lion’s share, but it’s also the engine driving the growth of other sports at Wisconsin. With the success of football and the comeback of basketball and ice hockey, Wisconsin has now built three major competition venues, along with practice facilities and academic-support centers. The biggest of these is the $76-million Kohl Center (Ibid.).

The problem is, however, that even though ticket revenues and other income sources have risen, they still haven’t been enough to cover the athletic department’s loss of $1.1-million last year. That department also lost $286,700 on the trip to the Rose Bowl, despite receiving $1.1-million in conference payouts from the game. In addition, “the 75-year-old football stadium needs major renovations to meet building-code requirements, and its seating areas, concourses, and concession stands need upgrading. The total cost of that work is estimated at $40-million.” “Other building projects include a new natatorium ($11.5-million), the second phase of improving a track-and-soccer complex ($5-million), and a new boathouse for the rowing teams ($3-million). In all, the construction projects are expected to cost $59.5- million ” (Ibid.). And Wisconsin is not the only university facing huge sports cost; “Wisconsin’s rivals in the Big Ten will be facing similar pressures on their budgets in coming years ” (Ibid.).

The Brown report cites sports economist Andrew Zimbalist. Zimbalist says in Unpaid Professionals that “Of the 933 schools of the NCAA, there are maybe 50 or 60 schools where the men’s football and basketball teams produce net revenue” (page 71). Of the Division I-A schools, Zimbalist says that “43 percent reported operating with a surplus in 1996-97 when institutional subsidies are included. However, without institutional support, the average Division I-A school in 1996-97 reported an operating deficit of $823,000" (page 149-150).

The Achilles heel in all this expense is that year after year Division I-A teams cannot falter; they have to be winners. Ferdinand A. Geiger, Ohio State’s athletics director put it this way: “the danger is that we all have to be good. None of us can afford to be roadkill.” That is, revenues depend on attendance and attendance depends of winning. Hugh Richter, Wisconsin’s athletic director concurred: “‘At least for the next five years, the huge thing is attendance.’ ‘We have to make sure we’re right there’” (Ibid.). Another thing athletics directors have to be right about is their budgets. Those budgets, they argue, must be irrevocably protected from proration and other fluctuations caused by unforeseen financial exigencies. These directors say they operate in a unique environment and that their costs must be met regardless of needs in other segments of the university. In other words, the costs of athletics departments are sacrosanct, which means, in effect, that athletics directors and their programs occupy a protected sanctuary within the university and that these sanctuaries stand apart from the standard university governance. Moreover, athletics directors are known for having powerful members of the Boards of Trustees protect their turf.

Mayer Mitchell recently averred that USA does “have financial restraints, and we would want to be certain that any financial strain from establishing football is minimized” (Mob.Reg., 11/3/99). But what Mayer doesn’t seem to realize is that the financial strain cannot be minimized when the nature of the beast is to maximize its budgetary appetite. And besides it’s foolish to talk about minimizing the strain from football, when, very clearly, the university has many things now straining its limited resources. The proclivity to maximize sports at USA is apparent in the work of two subcommittees of the USA Board of Trustees. One chaired by trustees Donald Langham and James Nix, both of whom have indicated many times their partiality towards sports, suggested that full-time marketing position be created for the Department of Athletics. Another subcommittee on facilities and resources/staffing, chaired by trustees Herman Thomas and Dr. Max McLaughlin, recommended a host of high-priority items for the Athletics Department:

Besides these needs, the subcommittee cited some long-term needs which include a golf-driving range estimated to cost $495,000, a softball complex, a natatorium, and football practice fields and an office complex. Should all of these items be budgeted and more that are yet to come, cost of football will be only the tip of iceberg that will make financial navigation at USA extremely hazardous unless there are untapped sources of income the USA Board of Trustees thinks it will gain access to. Their great hope was to get control of the USA Foundation, but that prospect looks bleaker and bleaker day by day, especially since Prime Health, which is cited by some USA Trustees as evidence of financial mismanagement by the USA Foundation, has been declared solvent by the State of Alabama’s Department of Insurance which has also lifted the consent order it imposed. To date, the football boosters have come up with nothing financially solid to show that football is any way a viable possibility at USA. True, Gottfried, in his propaganda packet, outlines funding sources, but they are speculative and hypothetical, and heavily depend on season ticket sales. Moreover, as the Brown report notes, “some items related to starting football seem to be omitted or not spelled out. These include the development and maintenance of practice fields and facilities, locker rooms, furnishing of offices, medical care, insurance, tutoring and other academic support, team meals, added SID costs and administrative costs. Travel costs related to joining the WAC...would obviously add monumentally to athletic expenses.” The Brown report also noted that “in the case that the football program began to show a deficit, university resources may have to be diverted to help support it, despite the best intentions or public pledges to the contrary. Once football is established, institutional prestige among other factors will make it almost impossible to end it, and the university may of necessity be forced to step in.”

And to make matters worse, there’s a little known fact, namely that the Athletics Department at USA is currently running a deficit in its 3 ledger account (income from USA administration) of approximately $1.5 million. To mitigate this debt, President Moulton recently authorized a $200,000 infusion into the Athletics Department. But delusion springs eternal in the human breast and maybe corporate sponsorship will foot the football bill. Hah! Fat chance! With downsizing and absconding to greener pastures by the paper industry, and with Delchamps a ghost of its former self, the corporate presence in Mobile has lost some of its paunch; it was pretty mean and lean to begin with. But that doesn’t seem to bother the effervescent Gottfried brothers with their paper-tiger report prestidigitated by Semoon Chang.

Another bad omen may be the woefully poor attendance at recent functions held in USA’s new sports emporium, the Mitchell Center. Judging from attendance at the first basketball game held in the Mitchell Center, audience support for athletics at USA may not live up to expectations. In the “Sports Sound Off ” column of the Mob.Reg., one person wondered “if the South Alabama Jaguar athletic officials realized how pitiful the crowd looked in the Mitchell Center as it was viewed on television during the sports reports. It looked like there was perhaps 20 people in the entire center.” Other sound-offers squawked over the high ticket price. One said, “I give the new Mitchell ‘A’ for looks and ‘F’ for operations. There were long delays for students to have their tickets scanned. My wife is a student but went ahead and paid $8,” Others said: “My husband had to pay $8 and my three-year-old daughter had to pay $8,” “There sure are some cheap people here in Mobile. Why do you constantly cry about the prices of games....USA has to pay for that building; why would they lower the prices? And you want football here at South? If they get it, you won’t go because it cost too much.” (11/8/99). Not only will it cost too much, but students will have to find a way to get to Ladd-Peebles stadium for home games.

Apparently the Indigo Girls Concert didn’t do so hot either. The Vanguard, the student newspaper at USA, ran a “staff opinion letter” about the failures of the USA marketing staff “to realize its advertising potential for the Indigo Girls Concert on Oct. 24.” The staff-opinion letter stated that only 2,000 people attended the concert when attendance should have been closer to 10,000. Mitchell Center Director, Terry Butler, took umbrage at this and claimed instead that because of “full-curtaining” the capacity for a concert is only 5,500. Now how did we get the impression that the Mitchell Center would easily hold 10,000 people? 5,500 people won’t cut it if USA hopes to make money off the Mitchell barn.

Does anyone really believe that Joe Gottfried’s “blueprint” for football at USA will ever produce a surplus? Get real! One more paragraph from the Brown report for the chronically deluded: “The odds against establishing a successful football program are extremely long. The odds against a successful money-making program are even longer.” Screamed a Chronicle of Higher Education headline of Oct. 23, 1998, “Finances of Big-Time College Sports Take a Sharp Turn for the Worse.” “Expenditures grew at a significantly faster rate than revenues in the average NCAA program during fiscal 1997. Even successful programs are finding that expenses are rising faster than revenues. For Division I-A, ‘average expenditures rose 21% and average revenues by 15%.’ The late Michael Hooker, then Chancellor of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said in 1997 that with its $27 million athletic budget, UNC ‘is one of the five or six schools in the country that are truly self-supporting. I know more schools claim to be. But,’ he noted, ‘I also know something about hiding money’’” (CHE, Dec. 5, 1997).

The other day I ran into Richmond Brown and congratulated him for the excellent report his committee produced. I also mentioned to him that it’s a good thing he has tenure because without it, it’s likely the USA administration would send him a letter of non-reappointment. That’s the standard administration’s way of getting rid of faculty before they come up for tenure. I was half joking, but a meeting on Thursday with Dr. Sue Walker, the chair of the English Department where I was employed full-time for 30 years, retiring last August, leads me to conclude that my comments to Dr. Brown were not wildly off the mark. Dr. Walker told me she could no longer give me part-time teaching assignments, and when I asked why, she said she couldn’t say why. I asked several more questions and to each she responded that she couldn’t comment. Obviously, now that I am a retired part-timer, like the rest of the part-timers I have no rights or privileges at all, and higher echelon administrators have at last seized the opportunity to have their little revenge for the articles I’ve been writing for The Harbinger. C’est la vie!

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