With Bowls cascading down and coaching blood leeting upon us, it's time to set back and take a look at college football. Interestingly the NCAA has kindly provided an MRI of its present state. The NCAA report on Revenues and Expenses: 2004-2009 for NCAA Division 1 Intercollegiate Athletics feels boring and dry. But the report reveals the genetic makeup of modern athletic departments with its microscopic examination of NCAA finances. Three conclusions leap from the report: 1) College Football dominates college athletics in a way nothing else does; 2) Colleges exist in a highly economically segregated world dominated by a very few wealthy programs; 3) College football does not pay for the other sports, but often may take away from them.
Football remains the most desired, watched and visible symbol of athletic prowess at the college level and probably in America. Schools that have no business being in the business continue to support money losing programs, and more schools grasp for the perceived glory and visibility and launch football programs. Schools clamor to enter the Division 1 level much as they clamor to become certified AAU schools in academic circles. Yet the median loss for college sports programs is 12 million dollars and for midsize programs that have no real TV revenues, the subsidy/loss can approach 20 million dollars.
For senior college administrators, the general public and many students, being a recognized a Division 1 football power generates a high level of prestige and recognition. College football forges a brand identity for many schools. These values drive a school's desire to have football programs. Too many people think a simple cost benefit analysis should explain college sports. It does not.
Modern American universities inherited the anomaly of the wedding sports and universities, but the Presidents, students, alumni and media have exploited this in a way that being stewards of intercollegiate sports is now an integral aspect of the culture of college life. It began a hundred years ago with breathless newspaper coverage of college events and the emergence of colors, nicknames, stadiums and rituals surrounding the games.
Many of the original college teams barnstormed as pros during the summer and went to school and played college ball in the autumn/winter. By the thirties jokes about football and college could become a Marx Brother's staple as well as movies on college sport nobility and corruptions. This wedding grew from a deep Greek ideal that perfection of mind and body manifest a deep form of education of the soul.
Given the centrality of sports to university identity and community as well as marketing, the dominance of football is not surprising. For a decade college football has been the most avidly followed sport in America. On an average week 28 games will be televised. This intensity of interest dwarfs other college and professional interest. College football creates a perfect storm of identity for alumni but also geographic inhabitants that unites memory, identity and enjoyment of a truly fascinating and dangerous spectacle.
In Part II, I will discuss the economic implications of this for college programs.