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Original Issue


After a decade of high living, college football faces a serious financial squeeze. Costs are still rising, but revenues approach a ceiling. For all but the richest teams austerity measures lie ahead

It is a time for accounting. Like business executives throughout the land, the trustees of college sport have been poring over their graphs, those craggy profiles of the financial scene. The picture they see is troubling. In the past decade athletic budgets have increased 108% (only 35% of which can be attributed to the cost-of-living rise). Some schools are now spending more than $3 million annually to field sports teams. Two-thirds of college athletic programs are operating in the red. In some major conferences as many as six members spend more for sports than they earn from them.

If statistics confuse you, if you thumb through the financial pages of the daily newspaper only to get to Peanuts, consider these specific areas of crisis:

Item 1: Forty-two colleges have dropped intercollegiate football because of inflated costs in the last 10 years. The State University of Buffalo joined the list just three weeks ago. Toward the end, with the handwriting plain on the bursar's wall, Buffalo Coach Bob Deming was fighting to save his program by buying at a discount from a sporting goods firm that was going out of business. He even changed to a cheaper type of laundry marker.

Item 2: The University of Kansas student senate voted last week to give no money from student fees to the school's major sports in 1971-72. The athletic department had been getting $180,000 annually. To try to recoup the funds, Athletic Director Wade Stinson plans to raise student season-ticket prices from $5 to $18 in football and from $4 to $15.50 in basketball, gambling that student attendance at games will not drop too drastically.

Item 3: The Big Ten, which long has had frosty relations with professional football (until recently it barred pro talent scouts from press boxes), is now actively courting professional team owners in an effort to get exhibition games booked into college stadiums. The University of Minnesota is after the Vikings, Northwestern wants the Bears, Michigan the Lions and Ohio State would probably settle for any old Super Bowl candidate with some regional appeal. Just this month it was announced that Notre Dame has made a match between the Bears and the Cleveland Browns at South Bend, for Aug. 28. Depending on the deal struck, a single pro football game might add as much as $200,000 to a college's athletic bank account.

Thus the colleges are scrambling for any cash around. Ohio State has led the country in football attendance in 19 of the last 20 years, but filling its stadium to the parapets does not leave OSU wallowing in profit. "The pinch is there, and we just have to face up to it," says Buckeye Athletic Director J. Ed Weaver.

In the '60s college football managed to stay generally abreast of escalating costs by upping ticket prices and cashing in on television. But now expenses are racing ahead of revenue. A detailed NCAA study of finances that has just been made public shows that football revenue increased by 12% in 1968 and 1969 but football expenses increased 19%. And athletic directors see no ready way to solve the problem. Many claim their ticket prices cannot be raised any more, which means their stadiums cannot be exploited further—they can only seat so many fans. Some major football schools have expanded their grandstands three times in the last decade. To make additions now would entail cantilevering the structure or massive excavating to build downward. The cost would be prohibitive. For example, Ohio State discovered that enclosing the open end of its stadium would cost more than the stadium itself did when it was built in 1922.

Football's savior in the '60s was television, but it now seems most unlikely that TV money will be increasing. Indeed, the opposite may be true when the networks bid on a new contract in 1972. Last week ABC, which currently televises college football, said it may not be interested in renewing the contract under the present terms. "The NCAA will have to lower its price demand or become more lenient in the selection of games to be televised," ABC Sports Vice-President Chuck Howard declared. "And maybe the NCAA will have to do both for us to buy the package again." ABC pays $12.1 million per season for the college games. For the year 1968, says the network, it absorbed a $1.8 million net loss on the venture.

Athletic departments once could rely on the university regents, alumni contributions and student funds to shore up their finances, but such donations are drying up—in part because of the economic climate, in part because of alumni disaffection with many college attitudes. Bob Deming saw gifts to his Buffalo team plummet from $74,000 to $1,500 in one year. Increasing numbers of universities are on very tight budgets, with some of them shutting down whole departments, such as engineering and dental schools. In these circumstances athletic deficits are becoming hard to justify. Yet 400 of the 655 NCAA-member colleges operate their sports programs in the red.

If, as the NCAA survey shows, only one-third of football's inflation is due to the cost-of-living rise, what accounts for the other two-thirds? It has been explained by Oregon State Athletic Director Jim Barratt as "keeping up with the Joneses." He says, "If our major opponent hires another football assistant coach, we try to match them. If our major opponent has more football scholarships than we have, we try to catch up. If our major opponent has an athletic dormitory, we get out the hammer and nails. If our major opponent shops for artificial turf, we start organizing a fund-raising campaign. This goes on and on. If we don't work through the NCAA for a solution of limitations, many of our coaches will be out selling insurance within five years."

In a sense, college football teams are like publicly held corporations. To keep the stockholders happy, each season must be bigger and better.

"Just as most people in the U.S. tended to improve their own housing during the 1960s," says Arkansas Coach Frank Broyles, "so colleges have enlarged stadiums and built dorms and field houses. We are in competition for the entertainment dollar; college football had better be a good show."

And so the extravaganza has become increasingly costly. The NCAA survey showed that in 1960 major colleges spent an average of $330,000 to field a football team. By 1969 the figure was $668,000. Last year alone the University of Houston upped its sports budget 26%.

The increases have come in all facets of the sport. Equipment costs have risen between 33% and 40%. Balls, shoes and uniforms now cost Ohio State $57,000 a season. Hospitalization, physicians' fees and medical supplies may be as much as $16,000. Mark the Buckeye marching band down for $22,500 or so. Recruiting expenses among top teams exceed $50,000 a year. The NCAA found the average tutoring bill for football players at major colleges was $16,700, and one Atlantic Coast Conference school is said to spend more than $20,000 for this item. Ten years ago the training table at Penn State cost $18,000. Now the bill is $35,000. When Oklahoma was virtually unbeatable in the '50s, Bud Wilkinson was paid the then handsome sum of $20,000 per year. His nearest counterpart today, Darrell Royal of Texas, makes $35,000. (But as Wilkinson did, of course, Royal earns far more than his coaching salary from other perquisites.) One Big Ten team is spending $19,000 a year on telephone and telegraph, but that is paltry compared with the sum run up at a Southern power that requests anonymity. Its coaches spend $28,000 telephoning and another $15,000 on postage. "We have no reason to refuse to let you use the name," an official said, "except that we are spending so much money it would shock people. They would think we are spending a lot more than everybody else. If every other athletic budget could be published, we'd be happy to publish ours, because we know we'd be pretty much in line."

A major increase has been in the grant-in-aid expense. The number of athletes receiving scholarships is higher than ever before, but more significant is the fact that tuition in most schools has doubled in 10 years, and in some cases has tripled. At Northwestern, for instance, tuition in 1960 was $1,000 a year; it will be $2,700 next year. Athletic directors can only wince when projections are made of the tuition fees of the future. By 1980, Northwestern estimates, its students may be paying $8,000 a year for their education. Ten years ago grants-in-aid cost the Ohio State athletic department $198,000. Now Woody Hayes gets a bill for $407,000. At Kansas one tuition-and-fee hike increased grants-in-aid $40,000 overnight.

But while the overall trend is disheartening, it must be pointed out that a few schools are making substantial profits from sport. Frank Broyles rides happy and high on the Arkansas hog. At LSU there has been an embarrassing bounty. In 1946 the school's athletic department was told it had to be self-supporting. It was to operate as a business, entirely separate from the university. If the business went bankrupt, then sports would be dead forever at LSU.

So successful was the athletic department that at one point it loaned the university $400,000 (at 6% interest, of course). Two years ago LSU's regents were lobbying desperately in the state legislature for more funds to pay professors. At that very moment a $2.3 million surplus sat in the athletic department coffers. In the last dozen years the department has showed a net profit ranging anywhere from $300,000 to $650,000 annually. Football has been the moneymaker. Basketball, even in Pete Maravich's heyday, lost money. In recent years much of the loose cash has been invested in capital improvements: new wings have been added to the athletic dorm, tennis and track stadiums have been built. A gigantic field house that will have five basketball courts, an eight-lap track and an expanse of synthetic turf is under construction. Even with all that, there is $950,000 left in the LSU sports kitty.

But it is not by the fortunate few that the state of college sport should be measured. Some schools currently operating close to the break-even point confess to a certain amount of fat in their budgets. "I am convinced that if I had to I could cut $150,000 to $200,000 without impairing our program," one Midwestern athletic director admits. "For instance, we spend $4,200 a season taking players to a motel on Friday night before home games. That's not necessary. Another item is color game films. Since we began using them, our film costs have risen some $10,000 to $15,000. Color film makes it no easier to study and analyze play, but the coaches say prospective recruits are more impressed by color film. That sort of expenditure can be trimmed."

For several years there has been a lot of jawboning about expenses, but coaches have continued signing vouchers and have paid little attention to all the hullabaloo. However, last month at the NCAA convention in Houston it was evident that the coaches are ready to give some ground. When he heard that the American Football Coaches Association was proposing a national limit on grants-in-aid, Big Ten Commissioner William Reed declared, "This is a very significant thing, because it constitutes recognition on their part that athletic economy is necessary for survival."

Frank Broyles, outgoing president of the AFCA, acknowledged that football coaches were now doing some fiscal homework, that their previously aloof attitude was no longer realistic. But Broyles himself is opposed to belt-tightening. "Football is the golden goose," he says. "Kill it or cripple it, and you run the risk of reducing the income which supports the nonremunerative sports." Quoting NCAA studies, Broyles pointed out that football pays its own way at nearly all the schools with the largest programs and also pays for about half of the other sports programs.

USC Coach John McKay issued a similar warning, stressing the fundamental point that football carries the financial load for college sport generally. "Suppose I have four businesses," he said, "and one of them is profitable and the other three are not. I ask my accountant for advice. If he tells me to cut back in the one business that is profitable, then I'm going to find me another accountant."

The NCAA had printed and ready for the coaches at Houston a 127-page booklet entitled Financial Analysis of Intercollegiate Athletics, which means the economic issues were there on the table. The NCAA had sent out 32-page questionnaires in the fall of 1969 asking for detailed information on athletic program revenues and expenses. "As you can imagine, some institutions are a little tender about divulging their financial status," said Mitchell H. Raiborn, author of the booklet, "either because they are doing so good or they are doing so bad." Elaborate coding schemes were set up to protect the colleges' privacy. The NCAA received data from 277 of the 655 schools queried (42%). At least half the members of every major conference filed reports. "We may have the figures, say, on an Ohio State but not a Texas, on a USC but not a UCLA," Raiborn notes. "It's a balanced, carefully computed survey."

In recent years there have been any number of suggestions on how to aid athletic budgets. The playing of an 11th football game was heralded as a panacea. But the result was predictable—it helped the rich get richer. If a school has trouble selling tickets to 10 games, an 11th only increases the headache. Nebraska scheduled an 11th game last fall with Wake Forest. The Cornhuskers, one of the nation's top teams, gave the visiting North Carolina school a substantial guarantee ($80,000) and pocketed the rest—a cool quarter of a million dollars from a capacity crowd. And the scheduling of games has become something of a fiscal rather than an esthetic art. The difference between playing Ohio State in Columbus and New Mexico in Albuquerque is about $100,000, as any athletic director knows.

Among the more extreme proposals to slash costs are the elimination of spring football (the Ivy League did it 19 years ago), putting territorial limits on recruiting, legislating the number of assistant coaches a school can hire (some have as many as a dozen), trimming travel squads and abolishing tutoring. This last suggestion comes from Wade Stinson at Kansas. "There is no more reason why an athlete should be provided with free tutoring than a nonathlete should," he says. "The trouble with tutoring is that it becomes a crutch to the athlete. Instead of starting out on the first day of classes and keeping up his work, he waits until shortly before exams and then yells for tutoring." A study of the Jayhawk annual budget bears this out. The books have sometimes shown less than $50 spent in tutoring fees between September and December. But between Jan. 1 and March 1, which includes the period of semester exams, tutoring jumps to $5,000.

From time to time there is talk of bringing back one-platoon football. Certain conferences, such as the WAC, advocate it. One Pacific Eight school did a study some time ago and found that using two platoons cost it an additional $100,000 a year. Another conference member estimated that added cost at $200,000 a year. Yet many coaches contend there would be no difference in cost, primarily because recruiting would be more difficult and expensive. Coaches will be in dire straits before they permit the reinstitution of the single-platoon game. "Sure you could save," says Pepper Rodgers. "And you could save even more by limiting every squad to 25 players and one coach. But you wouldn't have very good football."

Frank Broyles is one who believes the one-platoon game would cost just about the same. His staff, he notes, was the same size in the one-platoon years as it is now. "We would have about the same number of athletes, but fewer would get into games and you'd have disgruntled players. The great passers, runners and kickers we have now couldn't get into the games in most cases. You'd pick an end for defense, and he wouldn't be that nifty receiver. You'd pick a linebacker for fullback, and he wouldn't be that great runner. We'd lose the appeal of the exciting game we have today. It would be like taking the pros back to about 1936."

Some time ago San Jose State's Bob Bronzan was discussing the phenomenon of specialization in sports. "It starts in high school," he said. "The kids there are getting stronger coaching, and they specialize instead of becoming all-round athletes. In college today you seldom see a three-sport man. The athlete's lessons are very sophisticated. Years ago a defensive back just looked for the ball and tackled. Now his playbook is loaded. It costs more to finance specialized athletes under the guidance of specialized coaches."

Individual conferences have been experimenting with various ways to make their budgets balance. Several quite openly juggle their schedules to pick up more TV money. The Southwest Conference, with its lighted stadiums that permit night games, is said to pick up $1 million a year this way. Conferences are shortening minor-sport seasons, cutting down squads and limiting travel by these teams.

But sooner or later the NCAA is going to have to step in, stand very tall and pass legislation to institute wise economies nationwide. No athletic director is going to cut back on football unless he is assured his competition is doing likewise.

At present the NCAA is considering three proposals. The first is putting a limit of 120 on the number of football scholarships a college can have on the books—an average of 30 a year. These presumably would be renewable one-year grants. Ara Parseghian, for one, says he could live with such a curb on grants-in-aid. "We average just above that, about 32 or 33 a year," he says.

"I'm not sure though that big state schools like Texas could be competitive with that number. I think they give out something like 50 a year now and also redshirt players." A Southwest Conference coach—not Darrell Royal—explains that schools like Penn State and USC, situated in prime high school football areas, can get by with 25 or 30 grants, but coaches who have to travel long distances recruiting and are not familiar with prospects' day-in and day-out performances have to take more chances. They say they need 45 or 50 scholarships annually.

The second NCAA proposal is to award scholarships only on the basis of need. "Let me tell you this scheme can't work," storms Broyles. "If it were passed on a national basis you might have major conferences dropping out of the NCAA."

The final NCAA suggestion is to establish a national date for signing letters of intent. In effect, this would limit the recruiting season and thus trim recruiting expenses. At present, the Big Eight's signing day is Feb. 9, but another conference may have its day in May. Thus, while a Big Eight coach can stop worrying about another Big Eight school taking away from him a player he signs in February, he still has to worry and spend money to prevent his recruit from signing with a team in a conference with a May deadline. It has been suggested that the NCAA go even farther and bar all contacts with high school athletes until after they have played their final games in November. Such a rule, together with an early national letter-of-intent deadline, would appreciably reduce recruiting costs.

A fortnight ago the NCAA announced that it was considering summoning its members to a special spring convention to consider such proposals. But now NCAA officials are shuffling their papers and saying they don't want to give the appearance of "railroading" the football coaches. They have decided against an extraordinary session, which means no changes will be put into effect before 1973. Meanwhile, lots of schools that are not Arkansas, Texas, USC, Notre Dame, LSU and the like will just have to swallow their losses and hope they don't suffer the fate of a Buffalo—extinction.


THE HIGH COST OF SUITING UP: From helmet to low-cuts, the phantom player opposite represents an outlay o. $200—one-third more than a decade ago. Most expensive item: shoulder pads at $54, up from $38. Tape alone may cost a school $5,000.