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Do college athletics pay off? Updated!
Welcome to The Independent Forum. Every week we ask a different question and solicit responses from a diverse group of New Mexico thinkers, pundits and other observers of the state’s political landscape. We’ll add more responses as they come in, so keep checking back to see how the conversation progresses.
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With all the excitement about the Lobos and the Aggies in the NCAA, let’s talk about how much of an impact athletics really have on economic development. So this week’s question is:
QUESTION: “Should New Mexico be investing as much money as it does in college athletics?”
I am currently on the internet in Montevideo, Uruguay and I can pretty much assure New Mexicans that people here aren’t thinking about Lobo Basketball but about soccer. I think about half of South America’s GNP goes into hype about soccer. As for investing money in college athletics I don’t see a problem with it as long as it is a reasonable amount. I have never quite understood why the athletic coaches are the highest paid people at a University. Shouldn’t that be reserved for the biggest academic achiever on the teaching staff? Oh well, off to tour this beautiful town now.
Let me first state that I am a big sports fan and a fan of the Lobos basketball team. College football is another story and I have real problems with the way college football sucks up so many resources and so much attention at universities around the nation.
Ultimately, I don’t think that taxpayers should be footing the bill for major college sports. At the very least, athletics should be completely self-sustaining (and this includes those fees that students are forced to pay to subsidize the athletic programs).
The more important question is whether athletics should be such a central focus of the college experience and that athletic programs should be the public face of universities. I don’t have any good ideas as to how we should re-focus our universities on academics, but at the very least we should ensure that the burden of paying for sports programs does not distract our higher education institutions from their core educational focus.
Sports may satisfy the common lust of man for a power drink just as it did
in the Roman Colloseum. But, our institutions of higher learning should be
just that. I have thought that since I was a student member of the UNM
Sports Committee in the late ’60s. On the other hand if sports pays its
way, as it must, then who cares. Sports like the RailRunner only serves a
small part of our citizens and they all must pay their way. Sports like
gambling and Wall Street is a spectator activity where the house controls
the odds. Better the spectators roll up their sleeves and get to work and
contribute to the economy. Just some nascent mixed thoughts.
This question very much resembles the debate on some incentives or capital investments in things like the Spaceport. Here, the arguments are the investment translates into better facilities, coaches, and players which, in theory, results in more winning and high profile teams, which creates greater national attention, resulting in more name recognition. More name recognition, in theory, results in more tourism and tourism related dollars and jobs. It might also make a community more attractive to business investment, or at least get us “on the radar” through that branding, increasing the chance of investment.
College athletics and their pursuit has always had a place in supporting the academic mission of universities, so we’re really talking about “additional” investment (like we see in basketball relative to wrestling or baseball). The problem is none of these benefits can be easily be quantified or proven, so it’s difficult to know what the return on investment really is. Direct cost and revenue however, is something we can quantify. So, for the universities, I think if the spending is transparent and doesn’t take away from the students (i.e. the direct benefits of increased ticket sales, box leases, media and licensing covers the cost of the additional investment) then why not… and the rest, whatever it is, is gravy. If not, then perhaps not… or prove those other numbers.
Go Lobos! Woof Woof Woof!
The answer largely depends on the specifics of how much any institution is getting from their revenue sports, but it seems the investment is usually worthwhile. Any analysis has to include things like merchandise sales, alumni/ae giving, community impact, and, of course, the “Flutie effect.”
Back in 1984, quarterback Doug Flutie led Boston College to an incredible year and won the Heisman. Applications to the school jumped, and BC has had higher quality students ever since. Alumni/ae giving also jumped, and of course BC jerseys, hats, shirts, pennants, etc. were ubiquitous in the northeast.
Another benefit is that sports are a great educational tool, not only for the revenue sports, but for the non-revenue sports largely funded by the revenue sports. Yet another is that at least some scholarship athletes wouldn’t have another route to college, or would have a much harder one, and all of society benefits from having more well-educated citizens.
Also, how do you measure the entertainment and pride factors associated with collegiate sports? We have D-League basketball and minor league hockey and baseball, which are nice, but for many New Mexicans the Lobos or Aggies are their favorite sports entertainment, if not their favorite source of entertainment period.
Look at our Lobo run–there’s UNM merchandise all over the place. 6,000 people (including myself) showed up for an announcement at the PIT. We’re getting some great, much-needed national exposure.
If I had to make a few changes, I might say that the NCAA should lower the number of football scholarships per school, thereby reducing tuition, room, board, equipment, and travel costs. You don’t need to have two-way players the way we used to, but being three or four deep at every position and having an mostly separate special teams squad is overkill. I’d also revisit some of the crazy cross-country scheduling and travel costs in all sports, including how large of an entourage is paid for by tuition and tax dollars.
I know I love this time of year, and I’m really glad the Lobos and Aggies are a part of it. And I hope they’ll continue to be for years to come! Go Lobos and Aggies!
Yes, absolutely! I remember- in the early 1980s- what the NCAA Final Four tournament did for Albuquerque then! It literally put us on the map. We kicked off a wonderful image campaign for Albuquerque, created by Rick Johnson, (who we sadly just lost to cancer this week) about the same time as the NCAA Final four tournament. The campaign…”Albuquerque…a little east of Washington…a little west of LA”, was effective but nothing like what the tournament did for us to boost tourism and business relocation inquiries. There is no doubt in my mind that the big collegiate athletic events bring big bucks to a city. Just look at what it’s done for Indianapolis. We should mirror that effort in Albuquerque.
I love the Lobos and follow them religiously, but before weighing in on this week’s question, I checked in with some students and faculty at UNM to also get their assessment. What I heard confirmed by own sense of things: (1) There’s little correlation between a school’s spending on its athletic department and the success of its teams (academics love to research such things). (2) Most of the university’s team members are from out-of-state, which raises questions about using state tax dollars to “educate” other state’s kids. (3) The portion of student fees that go toward UNM athletics has doubled in the last five years. That’s a steep increase and one that many students don’t support. (4) Even in a good year like this one, top-ranked teams like the Lobos do not bring in ‘profits’ to the athletic department. Athletics is heavily subsidized by taxpayers and students, even when the teams are successful. (5) New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the nation, so it’s a little hard to justify UNM having the 16th largest increase in taxpayer subsidies for athletics.
And finally, some will no doubt say that successful athletics are good economic development, and while there might be some boost to business (especially sports bars!), funds invested in research and academics would bring in federal and private grants dollars, defray the costs of faculty salaries/benefits, and result in cutting edge innovations that are the key to New Mexico’s economic viability. UNM is after all, supposed to be an institution of higher learning, not a minor league pipeline for the NFL or NBA.
These are tough economic times. Lawmakers just cut the budget for education and eligibility for early education programs was just cut in half. Higher education got one of the biggest budget cuts, yet spending for athletics continues to increase. As one graduate student leader told me, it’s hard to justify that “money has been taken from academic purposes to fund athletics.” In tough economic times we need to refocus our priorities. UNM’s primary function is to educate the next generation of New Mexicans. Our best economic development is an educated work force that brings quality jobs to NM. Investing in students will improve our ability to compete in an even more competitive global economy.