College sports are big business, but just how big? In the SEC, on average, schools spend 12 times as much per individual athlete as they do per individual student. Not on the athletes, of course, just around them. There are priorities here. And for most schools, athletic revenue doesn't come close to covering these expenses, requiring universities to dip into general funds to keep their sports programs humming.
As university presidents meet in Texas for their annual conference, the Delta Cost Project at American Institutes for Research today released a study entitled Academic Spending Versus Athletic Spending: Who Wins? That study can be found below, but the shortest answer is: the coaches.
These are the figures that everyone's going to be talking about: how much the athletic conferences spend on their athletes versus their students. (A note on the data. Figures are from 2010, the last year available. Numbers are conference averages and not broken down by individual institutions. Only public universities' spending is available.)
The obvious takeaway: the SEC is insane. SEC schools spend more than 12 times as much on each athlete as they do on their regular, non-revenue-generating students. They spend 40 percent more than Big Ten schools, and 60 percent more than Pac-10 (now PAC-12) schools. The SEC's nearly $164,000 median cost per athlete is almost twice as much as the FBS average, and four-and-a-half times as much as the median FCS program. Becoming the country's undisputed college football elite conference doesn't come free, and it doesn't come cheap.
And remember, these figures are per athlete, not just per football player. Considering the costs of running a girls volleyball program, feel free to slide the football expenditures upward.
The imbalance isn't just an SEC problem, though. The average D-1 football school is spending 6.7 times more money on each athlete than on each regular student. The question then becomes: where is that money going? Those athletes sure as hell aren't getting paid.
The biggest single outlay, at FBS, FCS, and non-football schools, is compensation for athletic department staff. (Each of these people has to get a paycheck.) The study notes that fully half or more of that compensation is for coaches—at the biggest programs, coaches' salaries can make up 20-25 percent of the total athletics budget. That's more than the schools spend on facilities and equipment, and much more than they spend on the actual financial aid given to the student-athletes.
One more chart. This time, a breakdown of athletic departments' sources of revenue:
At FBS programs, funding largely comes from the Big Three: ticket sales, TV/bowl revenue, and donations combine to make up two-thirds of the average program's revenue. But perhaps we should make that the Big Four—institutional support and student fees combine to cover nearly 18 percent of the average program's intake. This puts the lie to the concept that most schools' athletic programs are self-supporting. The study finds that less than a quarter of FBS programs generated more money than they spent, with the difference coming directly from university subsidies and fees paid by all enrolled students. If you're a college student, odds are good you're directly paying for your school's teams.
Conclusions—the study has a few. Does an expensive, winning program actually benefit a university? Athletic success, especially in football, produces a yearlong bump in the number of applications, though the quality of the students admitted doesn't necessarily go up. If alumni donations increase—and various studies disagree on whether they do—the giving is usually confined to the athletic program.
The study notes that athletic spending grew twice as fast as academic spending over a five-year period, even in a nationwide economic downturn, and as conferences grasp the value of realignment and TV deals, there's no reason the trend shouldn't continue.
The full study: