As the new Duck basketball arena, Matthew Knight Arena, begins to take shape, with an estimated price tag of $200 million and as the new athlete-only study center, the "Nice Cube," opens its doors (funders kept the price tag on this one a secret), the true scope of just how big a business college sports is, comes into focus for me. And this isn't just happening at the University of Oregon, this is happening at colleges and universities all over the country. And understandably so. The total revenue for the 66 football teams in the six conferences that make up the BCS was reported at $2.2 billion for 2009. How is this happening? Is this a new phenomenon or is this the way college sports have always been? And what about the student-athletes? Where do they fit into this business? Let's take a closer look.
While sports revenues have consistantly increased at most universities from year to year, so too have the TV contracts to broadcast the games. ABC, which just renewed its contract for the rights to the Rose Bowl, will pay an average of $30 million per Rose Bowl through 2014. How does that happen? Are there more and more fans watching college sports? The answer is yes. Every year thousands of graduates leave campuses, but hold onto their loyalty to their alma maters. Among these graduates are future boosters. What’s a booster? It’s a college sports fan with a bank account and a mindset that they can and should be involved with making their favorite team better. They are passionate, they are proud and they have deep pockets. In the Univeristy of Oregon’s case, we have the ulitmate booster, Phil Knight.
By now, you’ve heard of Phil Knight. He’s the founder and CEO of Nike. He’s also a U of O alum and he loves his Ducks. He loves his Ducks so much that my calculator doesn’t have enough digits to add up the total amount of donations he’s made to the U of O athletic department. Of course he’s also made plenty of donations to other causes as well. For example, there was a $100 million donation to the OHSU Cancer Institue in 2008. But his clear passion is U of O athletics. Is there anything wrong with this kind of financial support to what for all intents and purposes is a hobby? That’s up to you to decide. If you’re a big fan of Duck athletics, you want your team to have the best facilities, the best coaches and of course the best athletes. You want your team to win games. If you’re not interested in sports, you can probably think of a hundred better ways to spend the money. But that’s a different article altogether.
So back to the student/athletes. Where do they fit into this? Well, let’s pick up their stories in high school. A top high school student/athlete can begin to be recruited as early as their sophomore year. That’s at the ripe old age of 16. The recruitment rules make sure that the recruiting is very unintrusive at this stage, in fact, the student has to contact the college, but here’s where things get a little blurry. The recruiting rules are pretty clear and both high school coaches and college coaches know them, especially at major programs. But just like big businesses often break laws and view the fines as a cost of doing business, these big college sports programs often push the limits of recruiting rules, viewing the infractions as a cost of doing business. Especially when the people directly responsible for the infractions are often boosters or people on the fringes of the programs. And later on, once the athletes are signed and on campus, there is a whole new level of solicitation. The top athletes know it’s a only a matter of time before they will declare themselves eligible for the pro level and feel like they should have some of the perks of being a superstar athlete. And here come the boosters, offering any number of perks to keep their stars performing and happy. Where’s my evidence? Just Google “college sports violations” and you will have more reading material than you can handle. And how can we blame these athletes for accepting perks? Their skill and performance is the reason why the stadiums are full of screaming fans. Their performance is the reason the schools are signing huge TV contracts. So what does it all mean?
It means, college sports are only going to get bigger. The violations will continue to increase, the new stadiums will get built and college coaches will be signing bigger and bigger contracts. It’s where a fan’s passion and a kid’s dream cross paths. And unless we all stop watching college sports, the TV contracts will still be the fuel for the fire. And that’s my two cents.