Hundreds of thousands of fans crowd into college football stadiums around the country to cheer on their favorite team or alma mater on any given Saturday in the fall. Many equate the University of Alabama or the University of Southern California with little, if nothing, else.
With the exception of Ivy League schools (which do not offer athletic scholarships) and other prominent academic institutions, many colleges and universities derive their identities from sports.
“Athletics are the front porch of the university. It’s not the most important room in the house, but it is the most visible,” Oregon State athletic director Scott Barnes told The New York Times in 2009 while holding the same position at Utah State.
Winning athletic programs raise a school’s profile, while generating excitement among students, alumni and donors. Teams build a sense of community while also bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars with ticket sales, merchandise and broadcasting rights.
Though they put significant emphasis on sports teams and sporting events, universities have a wide range of priorities, and not all of them place athletics over academics.
But with sports seemingly dominating the public image of a university, is there too much emphasis on athletics?
The Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics posed that question to Utahns in a recent poll.
The results show that 46% believe colleges and universities put too much emphasis on sports, but 48% say just the right amount. Only 3% say there’s not enough emphasis on sports and 3% don’t know.
Dan Jones & Associates conducted the poll of 803 registered Utah voters Aug. 7-14. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.
In the survey, the numbers stayed about the same regardless of gender. Interestingly, those age 25 to 40 were the highest among age groups at 60% to say colleges put too much emphasis on sports.
Do college sports make money?
Steve Ross, a law professor and co-executive director of the Penn State Center for the Study of Sports in Society, says the question of schools’ emphasis on sports is much more nuanced than a newspaper headline would suggest.
At Penn State, the athletic department reported $181.2 million in revenue with $170.5 million in expenses. In 2021-22, the football team alone brought in $105 million, offset by $60 million in expenses.
“To say we’re putting too much emphasis on football is like saying we’re putting too much emphasis on our research where we’re getting all these government grants because these are very effective,” Ross said.
But a profitable athletics department is the exception, not the rule. Only nine Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools made money in 2021, the median net revenue being $15.8 million, according to NCAA data. The total number of money-making schools was less than half of previous years, but the revenue figure was up significantly. With the exception of those schools, Division I programs needed student fees and institutional support to close the gap between revenue and expenses.
Ross questions the spending on the so-called nonrevenue or Olympic sports at universities.
“Why Utah tennis should be in a conference with Cal and Stanford as opposed to a conference with Idaho and Wyoming is not apparent to me. Does Ute tennis serve the community by providing a huge source of community entertainment to Salt Lake City? No. Who goes to the games? Family and friends. Who goes to the Weber State tennis games? Family and friends. Why can’t Utah play Weber State in tennis and get there in a minivan?” he said.
In most states, the highest-paid public employee is the football coach or men’s basketball coach. That is true at the University of Utah, where football coach Kyle Whittingham tops the list at $5.6 million a year in 2023, according to Transparent Utah, a state government website.
Second on the list is the men’s basketball coach, who doesn’t even work at the school now. The U. fired Larry Krystkowiak in 2021 but is still paying him $3 million on a contract that expires this year.
In addition to Whittingham and Krystkowiak, two assistant football coaches make the top 10, both earning more than $1.6 million a year. The other six, all in the medical field, make around $1.5 million annually.
Spending on athletics and academics
While Utah has fielded one of the top football teams in the nation the past few years, the University of Utah School of Medicine and University Hospital also consistently rank among the best in the country.
Universities spent $89.9 billion on research and development in math, science, engineering and other major fields in 2021, an increase of $3.4 billion over the previous year, University Business reported, citing National Science Foundation data.
The top 30 R&D universities — more than half of which were public institutions — accounted for 42% of total spending. Twenty-four of those schools invested more than $1 billion and all but three reported R&D expenditures for their medical schools, according to the report.
Interestingly, half of the schools in the top 10 also have high-profile, championship-level athletic programs: Michigan, Washington, UCLA, Stanford and Wisconsin.
In 2014, the American Association of University Professors issued a report saying that even as spending on instruction, research and public service declined or stayed flat, most colleges and universities rapidly increased their spending on sports, per The New York Times.
“Increasingly, institutions of higher education have lost their focus on the academic activities at the core of their mission,” the association wrote in the report. “The spending priority accorded to competitive athletics too easily diverts the focus of our institutions from teaching and learning to scandal and excess.”
The association hasn’t tracked spending on athletics since that nearly 10-year-old report, titled “Losing Focus.”
According to the NCAA, Division I schools spent $13.7 billion on athletics in 2021, down 11% from the previous year. The spending includes $2.9 billion on player scholarships and $3 billion on coaches’ salaries.
As a percentage of an institution’s total expenditures, spending on athletics dipped to 5.7% in 2021, after increasing over the past decade to a high of 6.7% in 2016, according to NCAA data.
What is the Flutie Effect?
Sometimes success on the gridiron or the hardwood translates into a boost in enrollment — or at least there is the perception that it does. It’s good advertising at the very least.
Take Boise State’s unlikely but memorable win over Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The epic game put Broncos football on the map.
“Whatever the pros and cons of intercollegiate athletics, Boise State is the model of what athletic success can do for an institution. And Boise State’s success stems from that New Year’s night in Glendale, Arizona,” Berry Tramel wrote in The Oklahoman in 2018.
Boise State’s enrollment jumped from a stagnant 18,876 in fall 2006 to 24,145 in spring 2018. The percentage of students from out of state skyrocketed. The percentage of in-state students, but outside the Treasure Valley that surrounds Boise, increased dramatically, Tramel reported.
The president of the university at the time said faculty recruitment became easier and the state legislature took more interest in Boise State. Research dollars exploded. Campus infrastructure blossomed, with new buildings all over campus, from dormitories to an alumni center to new engineering and business academic buildings, according to the story.
All involved, Tramel wrote, pointed to the 43-42 Fiesta Bowl win.
It’s known as the “Flutie Effect.”
In 1984, Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie threw a 48-yard Hail Mary that Gerard Phelan caught for a touchdown in the final seconds to beat Miami. The improbable win put Boston College, a private Jesuit school, in the national spotlight, leading enrollment applications to increase 30%, according to a study marketing professor Doug Chung published at Harvard in 2013.
In his study of the Flutie Effect, Chung found athletic success has a significant impact on the quality and quantity of college applicants in the United States. Schools that go from being mediocre to great on the football field see applications increase by 17.7%.
To achieve similar results, a school would have to either decrease its tuition by 3.8% or increase the quality of its education by recruiting higher-quality faculty who are paid 5.1% more in the academic labor market, he wrote.
“Overall, athletic success has a significant long-term goodwill effect on future applications and quality,” according to Chung.
However, students with lower than average SAT scores tend to have a stronger preference for athletic success, while students with higher SAT scores have a greater preference for academic quality, he wrote. But, “surprisingly,” athletic success impacts applications even among academically stronger students.
There might be several reasons success on the field or the court impacts a school’s enrollment applications, Chung wrote. It simply could be due to increased awareness. A winning team creates visibility and buzz, even for schools that are well-known.
Sports also are a big part of American culture and people make games a focal point of their social interactions.
“Students may find it appealing to take part in such social bonding over sports in order to feel as though they are a part of something special, something bigger than themselves,” Chung wrote. “This can lead to a virtuous cycle of improved alumni engagement with the school that translates into donations and help with job placement for current students, all of which enhances the school’s success.”
A research paper at Appalachian State, whose football team scored an iconic upset of Michigan in 2007, found the Flutie Effect leads to an average of 196 more students enrolling the year after an upset victory and 237 more after two years. A national championship increases enrollment by 213 students in that year and 170 the year after.
A 2021 study of the Flutie Effect by a doctoral student at the University of Louisville found that there’s a lack of primary data to explain the relationship between football or basketball success on student interest in a university.
Neither winning football nor basketball teams significantly predicted the importance of athletics on undergraduate students’ enrollment decisions, the study showed. But winning teams help build a tight-knit campus community and students’ satisfaction over their choice of school.
The Flutie Effect is only impactful if a school can sustain its success, and most can’t, at least not at the same level.
While some universities’ identities are wrapped up in athletics, many are not. And those identities can come and go.
“I think a good example of that is Colorado. I would not have said Colorado has a particular identity around football. They hired this sports celebrity and now everybody is talking about ‘Colorado Prime.’ That is not going to last more than five years,” Ross said about the school hiring Deion Sanders, known as “Prime Time” during his NFL days and now as “Coach Prime.”
Ross said he doesn’t think of Utah as a football school but as the premier public university in a “Mormon” state.
“For me, even Notre Dame and BYU are not football schools. Notre Dame and BYU are these well-known religious schools with a religious affiliation,” he said.
Athletics and academics can work together.
After winning his first national football championship in 1982, the late Penn State coach Joe Paterno urged the university’s leaders to aspire to academic as well as athletic excellence. “Without a great library, you can’t have a great university,” he said at the time. He and his wife, Sue, led a campaign that raised $13.75 million to build a new library, including several million dollars of their own money.
Paterno joked that Penn State was the only university with a library named after a football coach and an athletic arena — the Bryce Jordan Center — named after a college president.