The College Sports Cash Cow Causes Conference Migrations

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The College Sports Cash Cow Causes Conference Migrations

How Notre Dame’s own pot of gold and TV changed chasing the college sports rainbow for everyone

Jordan Cox JOU 5V90 May 12, 2011


The luck of the Irish really had nothing to do with it. It was economic savvy. In 1951, the University of Notre Dame, and television, forever altered the way college sports are being conducted. The pair did it again in 1991. The deep quest for the pot of gold at the end of the college sports rainbow has caused schools to leave their historic and traditional conferences in search of greater booty. It has become a near seasonal migration, not unlike the swans returning each year to Capistrano. Indications for the future is that the only constant for college sports and the schools which participate in intercollegiate athletics will be, change. The athletic departments of these institutions and the institutions themselves, not only want the money, they need it. Signs are schools will do whatever they need to do, wherever they need to do it to keep open the cash faucet.


“In 2003, an NCAA study noted that 85 of the then 117 institutions in Division I, the highest level of intercollegiate athletics, reported a positive cash flow.” (Fulks, 2004) According to that same study, the number of schools reporting a positive cash flow drops to only 47 if general fund subventions, scholarship supplements, and student fees transferred from the university to its athletic department are placed in the equations. (Fulks, 2004) These findings beg a very simple question. Why can’t anyone be certain if money is being made or not? Athletics departments have revenues and expenses and it should not be difficult to determine the differences between income and spending. “Two answers exist. The first is practical: no trustworthy data set on revenues and expenses currently exist for intercollegiate athletics. This chapter examines the history and shortcomings of the available data collected over the past forty-five years. The second answer explains the reason for the unavailability of such data. Colleges are nonprofit institutions.” (Suggs, 2009) Herein lays the real truth at the heart of the matter, both legally and in thought. It is a powerful theory to account for colleges’ actions, according to Howard R. Bowen, author of The Costs of Higher Education. Universities do not make decisions to maximize profit. Instead, they make decisions to maximize revenue collections and prestige. (Bowen, 1980). “As a result, the revenue available for educational purposes determines costs in higher education.” (Suggs, 2009)

The Big Ten Conference serves as the exemplar of universities crafting decisions to capitalize on revenue collections and prestige. League documents reveal, “The Big Ten Conference has a very simple mission: Collection of revenue from various sources and remission to member schools' athletic departments." (Suggs, 2009) However, the commissioner of the Big Ten Conference is quick to point out the league’s objective is quite different, when he states,

"The Big Ten Conference, Inc.'s primary purpose is to regulate intercollegiate athletics as institutional activities, to encourage sound academic practices for student athletics, and to establish harmonious intercollegiate relationships among member institutions. The Big Ten is an association of world-class universities that share a mission of research; graduate, professional, and undergraduate teaching; and public service. While intercollegiate athletics has an important place within each institution, the Big Ten's comprehensive set of shared practices and policies enforces the priority of academics in student-athletes' lives and emphasizes the values of integrity, fairness, and competitiveness.” (Delaney, 2010)

If colleges make decisions to maximize revenues and prestige then it requires only a very small step to comprehend why college sports is such big business. It is a very big, beneficial business for those with a product to be marketed. One observation affirms, “Let's not even pretend that Div I-A (BCS) college football isn't a business.  It's not even an argument. According to the U.S. Department of Education, college football generates over $2.2 billion dollars (as of 2009).  Read that again, if you need to.  That's billion dollars.” (, 2011) Writer, Frank DeFord concurs. He states, “To acknowledge that the revenue sports have anything to do with education is to play into the hands of the NCAA and other sport sycophants who want you to think precisely that. Revenue sports are just about that - revenue. They have nothing whatsoever to do with education.” (Deford, 2007)

The escalating costs of college sports also are fueled by universities' desires to reap the benefits of a winning season, which can boost, among other things, attendance and TV ratings, which means enhanced revenue streams. Small and midsize schools are particularly squeezed, unable to generate big-time funds like major schools, but still face student, alumni and community pressure to win. “Spending on Division I intercollegiate athletics has increased on average about 25%, while university spending has increased on average 10%, after inflation. Athletics-generated revenue are not keeping pace with costs.” (Sylwester and Witosky, 2004)


While universities are using varying methods to make up the increasing deficits, like student fees, (Sylwester and Witosky, 2004) the life preserver in the sea of challenge for athletic departments is clear. The lucrative delivery method and platform of choice for college revenue sports is television. It has been the choice since Notre Dame and the college sports regulatory body, the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) figured it out in the 1950s.

In 1951 administrators at Notre Dame agreed to a $55,000 package for televising university football games with DuMont. (Sandomir, 1999) The school striking its own television deal was shocking at the time. The NCAA claimed television exposure would hurt attendance. The university came under heavy criticism for their decision to such a degree that some schools threatened to boycott Notre Dame’s games. The former executive vice president of Notre Dame, Reverend Edmund Joyce states, "We thought the fear of TV was misplaced. The NCAA scared people with its argument that there would be a lot of empty stadiums." (Sandomir, 1999)

Some argue the NCAA’s pressure on Notre Dame had very little to do with the fear that fans would not fill stadium seats, but rather that the NCAA did not want to lose control over TV. The truth may never be fully known, but interestingly in 1952, just one season after Notre Dame struck its own national contract, the NCAA made a pact worth $1.1 million dollars for a TV deal with NBC, the National Broadcasting Company. This arrangement and contract precluded individual institutions like Notre Dame from setting up their own contracts. The NCAA and NBC deal ended Notre Dame's relationship with DuMont. This 1952 covenant gave the NCAA complete dominion over televised college football and according to Rev. Joyce, cost the Irish a bundle. "The N.C.A.A. policy caused us to lose millions of dollars”, Joyce said. Officials at Notre Dame were correct. Televising games did nothing to hurt attendance. According to the NCAA’s history, this was born out statistically in 1954 where television ratings were high and attendance at games was soaring. (Sandomir, 1999) The Irish had to wait 30 years for their luck to change. Notre Dame had to linger until 1984 to receive some vindication against the NCAA regarding the NCAA’s previous decision over television. The Supreme Court declared the NCAA’s TV plan illegal and that the collegiate ruling body's policies were too restrictive. The NCAA had always limited the number of college football games that could be televised each week and the number of times a particular team could appear on network TV each season. The stated purpose of these limitations had been to reduce, insofar as possible, the adverse effects of live television on attendance at the games. (Flygare, 1984) “The contracts with ABC and CBS for four seasons from 1982 through 1985 required each network to schedule appearances for at least 82 different member institutions during each two-year period. No member institution could appear on television more than six times during the two-year span, and no member institution was permitted to sell TV rights except in accordance with the basic NCAA plan.” (Flygare, 1984)


With less restrictive rules, the College Football Association saw the way paved for its first television pact. For all intents and purposes, though, history repeated itself in 1991 over the same matter. When college football’s most popular star did not care for the new College Football Association (CFA) television plan, Notre Dame chose to market itself and create its own $38 million dollar television arrangements with NBC. It was a multi-million dollar defection from the CFA’s covenant with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and its sports cable subsidiary, ESPN. "The NCAA plan so irritated our alumni and fans and was so unfair," said Joyce, "that we're happy to have all our home games shown nationally and at the same time" (Sandomir, 1991)

In his work, The Fifty-Year Seduction: How Television Manipulated College Football, from the Birth of the Modern NCAA to the Creation of the BCS, Keith Dunnavant contends that television is the powerful weapon in the athletic department’s arsenal. Its strength is unmatched as a recruiting tool. Prospects and recruits knew all about a school because of television well before cable TV. Dunnavant maintains, “Being part of the TV aristocracy gave a program unmistakable cachet” (Dunnavant, 2004) “Television made schools known entities in homes across the country. Teams that appeared frequently thrived, and those left off the television schedule just couldn’t compete.” (Anctil, 2006)

In 2002-2003 the Big Ten, with its collection of large state universities across the Midwest, showed its expertise and dominance in these well-paid waters. Including television contracts and bowl games involving member institutions, the league took in “$117-million dollars, distributing $110-million to its members and spending the rest on administrative costs and championships. Only one other league, the Southeastern Conference, cracked the $100-million mark for either income or distributions.” (Suggs, 2004)

Football is not the only sport where television has paid giant dividends to colleges, though. Basketball has also become a major stream of revenue for universities and their caretaker, the NCAA. Many have criticized the NCAA for its governance, citing that the entity has become a multibillion-dollar organization that continues to hold a monopoly on college athletics. Much of the television royalties and other revenue of college athletics go directly to the NCAA, which distributes the money as it sees fit to its 1,200 member institutions. “The organization has smoothly adapted to the big-money era of college athletics.” (Bloom, 2003)

In 2010 an influential watchdog group encouraged members of the NCAA and Bowl Championship Series (BCS) to change the way they divide millions of dollars in men's basketball and football revenue, “proposing the creation of a fund that would allocate money based on academic success rather than victories or tournament appearances.” (Thomas, 2010) The recommendation by the group, the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, provided a kind of counterpoint to the many schools changing conferences because of their opportunity for greater revenue. According to the Knight Commission, “The discussion has centered on wins and losses, television markets and brand image.” (Thomas, 2010)

The distribution plan for revenues for the NCAA has changed only slightly over the years, despite the heavy criticisms. In 1990, the NCAA was deciding how to dole out the first $69.9 million dollars of the seven-year, $1 billion dollar television contract they had with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). Former executive director of the NCAA, Dick Schultz, announced the new “feeding” formula for the NCAA basketball tournament. In 1989 each tournament game was worth $294,000 to each team, however, under the new formula each tournament game was worth only $40,000. “A plan to distribute $31.2 million to conferences based on the success their member teams had in the tournament was announced earlier. The NCAA announced a formula under which individual schools will share in an additional $31.25 million depending on how many sports they sponsor and how many athletic scholarships they give. The third part of the plan provides money for programs that aid athletes academically.” (N.Y. Times, 1990) That was 1990 and the numbers and dollar signs have only grown larger since then. It appears; however, whether it is basketball or football, the major colleges receive a disproportionate amount of the proceeds. This fact, prompted one writer to offer a parallel to professional sports. “The way the D-I system works would be similar to the NFL telling the Green Bay Packers, you can participate in the league, but as you are a small-market team, you cannot participate in the playoffs. It does not matter if you are undefeated." (USA Today, 2004)


Just how much has the amount of money for distribution changed since 1990? Enough that major college athletics and conference alignments with members institutions have become a veritable musical chairs where fans, alumni, and other interested parties need a scorecard to keep up. Almost every major athletic conference has undergone some change in membership in recent years. A few examples include:

The Southeastern Conference, which includes universities, like Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee, and Louisiana State agreed to a “$2.25 billion deal with ESPN for rights to televise the conference's games through 2025. With an additional $55 million annually from CBS, the SEC will get $205 million a year over the life of the television contracts, a little more than $17 million per school per year.” (Oriad, 2008)

The Atlantic Coast Conference had a sparking realignment and change of conference schools in 2003. A renowned basketball power for decades, it now has now added the Uninversity of Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech and Boston College, which has allowed for more recognizable clout in football. Conference commissioner John Swofford said, "We're not going to back away from a full basketball commitment in any way. That's what has driven our league for a number of years and given us much of our identity," But this can give us a balance that we have not had." (Wieberg, 2003)

The Big East Conference has been maligned historically for not being a very good football league. Schools like, Marquette, DePaul, Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Villanova are among its members. The Big East does possess however, the prestigious and lucrative annual prize of an automatic BCS bid to the winner of the league. The attraction was too great for Texas Christian University located in Fort Worth, Texas, to remain in its current environment. Recent national football successes in a conference without that profitable BCS card, T.C.U. propelled the coastal leap to the Big East. John Marinatto, the commissioner of the Big East, announced the league would add T.C.U. in all sports for the 2012-13 seasons. (Thamel, 2010) It was not the first move off the coast for the Big East Conference. In 1994, the Big East moved to the Midwest, when it received the University of Notre Dame into its membership. Notre Dame’s football program was not included and remained independent, but the Irish basketball program obtained a needed boost, even though institution’s athletic director Dick Rosenthal said, "I don't want to leave the impression we were forced into a conference because we could not compete as an independent. I never felt we needed to cease being an independent in basketball. I still believe that. I just think this is a great marriage." (Moran, 1994)

The Mountain West Conference, the Western Athletic Conference, and Conference-USA, are other examples of major athletic unions among colleges that have undergone major shifts in membership, however, conferences like the Pacific-10 (Pac-10) and the Big-12 Conference, may have provided the biggest news related to changes with what occurred and did not occur within their ranks.

In a move that might have well begun an era of “super-conferences”, the Pac-10, with high profile schools like the University of Southern California (USC), University of California-Los Angeles (ULCA), Arizona State, Arizona, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington, sought to add to their financial fortunes by serenading other high profile schools to join their ranks. After luring the University of Colorado to their ranks from the Big-12, other desired schools from the Big-12 conference included the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. These moves would have decimated the Big-12, having been left seemingly vulnerable with the prior defection of the University of Nebraska for the financial windfalls of the Big-10 Conference.


The University of Texas was the lynchpin for the Pac-10 and its vision for the future and was most certainly the key to the Big-12 staying together, even with just ten teams. Promises of larger television payouts and potential to launch their own television network kept the Longhorns from joining a conference whose home offices are over 1,100 miles away. “The Pac-10 paid out $11.5 million to its top school in 2010 which is still $7.7 million less than what last place Indiana pulled down in the Big Ten. By expanding the Pac-10 footprint into Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, the Pac-10 would have potentially put his payouts on par with the Big Ten's.” (Murphy, 2010) In 2008 Texas led the nation in total athletic revenue, amassing an incredible $138.4 million dollars almost $20 million more than second-place Ohio State of the Big-10. (Murphy, 2010)

Since deciding to stay in the Big-12, and with allowances made by other conference member institutions to the Longhorns, the University of Texas has begun negotiating with Time Warner, Comcast, and AT&T for distribution of a 24/7 sports channel. Texas boasts one of the nation's biggest athletics budgets, reportedly exceeding $120-million a year. (Moser, 2008) The proposed network would broadcast a variety of sports. According to a senior vice president of International Management Group, the firm that manages the university’s trademark-licensing, marketing, and multimedia rights, "Texas has such an incredible fan base and such great content through all its sports programs that we feel a network like this will have a real following.” (Moser, 2008) It remains to be seen how much a Texas sports network would bring to the university. One big challenge for the proposed Longhorn Sports Network: It doesn't have the rights to televise all of the university's football games.” (Moser, 2008)


Other conferences have attempted to start their own networks for televising their sports. The Mountain West Conference started Mountain West Sports Network in 2006, and the Big Ten Conference started its own sports network in 2007 through an agreement with Fox Cable Networks. New competitors in market of college sports television have emerged including, College Sports Television, ESPNU, and Fox College Sports. (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2006) All these entities have been birthed and will advance literally for the true bottom line in college sports, money.

The riches from television are seemingly enormous and continue to grow. The College football's Bowl Championship Series, called the Big Cash Series by some observers, have reaffirmed the norm in sports: “TV rights always go to the highest bidder.” (Hiestand, 2008) Beginning in January 2011, the BCS will be working under a pact with Disney-owned ESPN where the cable sports network will be paying $125 million annually for four of the five BCS games through January 2014. Disney already has the rights to the BCS' Rose Bowl game in a separate deal. (, 2010) A four year $500 million contract was signed by ESPN to broadcast the Bowl Championship Series games. (Thomaselli, 2010)

The response by the Fox Network, Disney’s major competitor for these highly watched games, was guarded and perhaps insightful for the future of these ventures, especially as it relates to the fans and viewers who actually “pay” for the broadcasts through advertising. At the time of Disney’s new bid, Fox was spending $82.5 million dollars annually for four BCS games. In a statement offered by the Fox network, it was stated that it (Fox) had offered "as much as any over-the-air network could responsibly risk" before college football chose to "move its jewel events to pay TV." (Hiestand, 2008) It should be noted that, unlike broadcasters, who rely only on TV ad sales, cable TV also gets subscriber fees from cable operators, and ESPN's fees are the highest in the industry. (Hiestand, 2008) ESPN's BCS bid includes radio rights and international TV rights. Fox reaches 114 million U.S. households compared with 98 million for ESPN, although ESPN cites research finding 92% of Fox's BCS viewers also have cable or satellite television.” (Hiestand, 2008)

The parade of networks and the accompanying cash indicate that audiences are present for their existence. The college sports product available for these new television opportunities are expanding past the traditional football and basketball. “Launched in 2003, College Sports TV (CSTV) aims to be must-see TV for devotees of college baseball, hockey, rugby, lacrosse, track and field, gymnastics, softball, sailing, water polo, rodeo, and, even debate.” (Gunther, 2008) CSTV does show college football and basketball, but only when it can get rights inexpensively. The network’s 46-year-old chief executive officer, Brian Bedol, says, "Our goal is to give college sports fans a network of their own without really worrying about how many people are watching any given game at any given time." The audiences are small, but if enough small audiences with a passion for a particular sport are present, this niche marketing approach, a very popular trend in business, could very well make the network a successful enterprise. (Gunther, 2008) Bedol adds, "Our game plan is to serve the unserved college sports fan who isn't getting what they want from ESPN or Fox." (Grover, 2006) Other sports, like volleyball, soccer, and lacrosse, are also “gaining exposure and that attention has expanded opportunities for female college athletes and coaches.” (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2006)


The college sports financial arms race shows no indication of reaching a detente anytime soon. Learned college athletic department administrators and wise business executives are plowing newer and richer soil. It has been suggested that recent events were orchestrated by leaders using the tools at their disposal to move forward. For example, concessions were made to the University of Texas to help convince the school to remain in the Big-12 conference. One astute observation of this decision included: “Smart administrators played the overheated media to advance agendas — which is how Texas wound up getting charity from schools like Kansas State.” (DeCourcy, 2010)

The case of Vanderbilt University may best summarize the current state of affairs in college sports. A private university in Tennessee with a high academic reputation, Vanderbilt is a member of the historically competitive Southeastern Conference. In 2003, the chancellor of the university, Gordon Gee, grabbed headlines when he announced that he was disbanding the university's athletic department. Although no sports teams or athletic scholarships were cut or otherwise lost, Gee did strike a chord. “In trying to pull the athlete back into the academic community, he became the public face of a movement that is making a serious stab at reforming college sports.” (Rozin and Zegel, 2003) Gee stated the reaction from his peers at other institutions was one sided. He said, ``…other universities have called and said: 'Good, you jump off that cliff, and if it works, get back to me.''' (Rozin and Zegel, 2003)

The response should not be surprising. The success or failure at Vanderbilt under this management model might foretell the future of extracurricular activities that has grown into a $3 billion-a-year annual industry, according to Smith College economist Andrew S. Zimbalist. (Rozin and Zegel, 2003) Beyond the crowds and TV hype, pressure is building either to change the perception that athletes truly are or should be students, or recognize that – “at least at big-time sports schools -- it's too late to turn back the clock. And that's pitting reformers against an army of alumni boosters, politicians who control state schools, TV networks, and commercial interests -- all of whom would feel the impact of downsizing college sports.” (Rozin and Zegel, 2003) The future of college sports will reveal the rich will become richer.


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