By CATEY HILL
1. "You can't get a scholarship ..."
For many high-school jocks, the dream of playing for their favorite college begins in Pee Wee. But the harsh reality is that only a lucky few get the letter. Of the roughly 1.1 million kids who play high school football, just 66,000 suit up in college, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. From that group, the number awarded football scholarships is even smaller: about 19,500, according to an investigation by US News. By those numbers, about 3 out of every 200 high school football players earn scholarships -- and 197 don't. A spokesman for the NCAA says he can't confirm the exact number of football scholarships given each year, but overall, Division I and II schools together give out 126,000 athletic scholarships each year.
Even for the lucky 1.8%, earning a scholarship doesn't mean keeping one. If a player gets hurt or doesn't qualify academically, he could lose his scholarship to a new recruit. "There's no such thing as a four-year scholarship," says Ramogi Huma, president of National College Players Association, a nonprofit group that advocates for college athletes. "These are only one-year deals."
It's a rule that's drumming up a lot of controversy -- but as of right now, it stands. Joseph Agnew, a former Rice University football player who lost his scholarship for senior year, filed a lawsuit -- which was dismissed -- against the NCAA in October 2010 alleging that the one-year rule amounted to price-fixing between the NCAA and the university. Also in 2010, the NCAA revealed that the antitrust division of Department of Justice was investigating this rule. In a statement addressing the investigation, the NCAA said that one-year scholarships are, in effect, a "merit award" and that "an annual review of whether an individual meets the standards of a merit award is the most appropriate way to ensure that the most deserving student-athletes receive that award each year." The Department of Justice declined to comment on the status of the investigation.
2. "... And even if you do, it'll cost you."
Even for athletes who win a full-tuition scholarship, it still might not pay all the bills. While the NCAA estimates the value of the typical full scholarship at a private university is worth about $35,000 a year -- $15,000 for in-state public schools -- players at the biggest football schools typically have to come up with another $3,200 or so to cover transportation, school supplies and other expensive, according to Huma.
It may not sound like much, but making up the shortfall isn't easy, even for collegiate athletes who may be full-fledged celebrities on their campuses. Between practices, weight-training, watching game tape, and travel, football itself can be a 40-plus-hour-per-week commitment -- there's not a lot of time left over for classes, let alone a part-time job. And while an athlete can work part-time, the NCAA has strict rules about the kinds of jobs they can and can't take. Critics say that's not fair, especially in light of the money a team can make for its school via TV deals and other events, and that more money should trickle down to the athletes. University presidents, for their part, have said they are considering increasing grants to athletes that would cover the full cost of attendance, says the NCAA spokesman.
3. "The wrestling program may not survive, but we will."
Faced with shrinking revenue and big budget deficits, many colleges and universities have cut scholarships and coaching positions, and pared back expensive travel schedules. Others cut full programs. Beginning in the 2012-13 school-year, the University of Delaware will no longer field men's varsity track and field or cross country. In 2009, Kutztown University cut men's soccer and men's swimming, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology cut eight teams, including wrestling and men's and women's gymnastics. All three schools cited financial straits as one of the reasons for the cuts.
But even though football is easily the most expensive sport a university can sponsor -- the biggest football programs cost nearly $12 million on average in 2009, compared to just $771,000 for soccer, according to an NCAA report -- it's typically last on the chopping block. Schools say football's popularity brings additional benefits, like alumni support and revenue from ticket sales and, possibly, bowl games. Plus, a good team having a good year can enhance a school's reputation with applicants more than, say, a stellar season for the swim team can, says Dan Fulks, an accounting professor at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., who studies the economics of college sports.
Still, critics cry foul, saying that schools are unfairly favoring men's football (and, to a lesser degree, men's basketball) at the expense of other sports. For athletes in minor sports, cutbacks can mean the sudden loss of a scholarship or thousands of dollars in financial aid. The aggressive spending on football amounts to "a 'financial arms race' that is bleeding institutions of the money they need to support other men's minor sports," says Donna Lopiano, president of sports consulting firm Sports Management Resources.
4. "We're not always the cash cow we appear to be."
Anyone who's been within five miles of Texas Memorial or Camp Randall on game day can see how football could be big business for a top-tier program. And some of the country's best football teams do earn millions each year for their schools. But the vast majority don't, especially since the recession. Last year, 42% of the teams in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division 1A), lost money, according to a NCAA report prepared by Fulks. How much did they lose? A whopping $2.9 million, on average. (In comparison, the 69 money-making football programs brought in a median of $9.1 million, with at least one school generating as much as $65 million.)
To be sure, a losing football team doesn't necessarily pull the whole athletic program down with it. But sometimes, it does. So, who pays for a losing program? Often, other students, in the form of higher fees. A recent analysis by USA Today found that students at more than 200 Division I public colleges and universities paid roughly $795 million to support school sports programs in 2009, an 18% jump from 2005. "When an athletic department is unable to generate revenue to cover expenses, the difference is made up with institutional support," says Amy Perko, the executive director of the Knight Foundation, a college athletics watchdog organization. "That means student athletic fees may increase." A spokesman for the NCAA says that student fee increases are determined by individual schools and not something that the NCAA regulates.
5. "Need an ambulance? Not on game day."
As with any event that draws thousands of screaming fans, football games require all kinds of extra people, including emergency city employees like firefighters, police and medical technicians. "In many cases, big-time football games put increased stress on local security and medical personnel," write Dennis Coates, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, and Craig Depken, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina, in their study of college football and local economies. Thus, a major emergency could hinder these personnel's ability to respond effectively, the authors conclude.
This may be especially true in small towns, the authors write. In College Station, Tex., for example, the population can swell by nearly 20% when the Texas A&M Aggies play a home game, according to the professors' research. For concerned residents, this, at least theoretically, isn't a question of sufficient school spirit: if an ambulance takes longer than five minutes to arrive at the scene of a heart attack, it cuts the survival rate by more than 10%, according to a study by the National Institute for Health. A spokesperson for Texas A&M says that he is "not aware of any problems" in response times of local emergency teams due to game day crowds.
6. "Amateur athletics, professional prices."
For students willing to camp out for a day or three at the beginning of the season, football tickets can be an eminently reasonable $10 to $30 per. For everyone else, they can get pricey in a hurry. The average ticket to a big-conference football game costs $150 to $200, according to a spokesperson for StubHub.com, a ticket resale site. Even a seat in the nosebleeds can set you back $50 to $75. And those are average prices. Rivalry games, the chance to see highly ranked teams or star players, or other high-stakes matchups can cost more than twice as much. Some tickets for this year's Alabama-Auburn game are currently listed for more than $8,000 each, according to StubHub.com; one person even listed a ticket for the Oklahoma vs. Florida State game at $24,000.
Of course, there are ways fans can save money on tickets. For non-conference or less popular games, "about 40% of tickets on the secondary market sell for below face value," says Mike Janes, CEO of FanSnap.com. Sites like StubHub.com and FanSnap.com allow for price comparisons and consider waiting to buy as prices may drop closer to game day. For more popular games, you're likely to pay face value of more. But "prices can vary from 10 to 50% in a single day," Janes says, which means that buyers should check the sites at different times of the day and week for the best prices.
7. "Taxpayers, students: Pony up."
When public universities build a fancy new stadium, it's often taxpayers who get stuck with the bill. About half of the roughly $280 million cost of the University of Minnesota's 50,000-seat TCF Bank Stadium, completed in 2009, came from the state's general fund, which supports a number of projects that aren't specifically allocated for in other state funds, at an annual rate of about $10 million per year for roughly 25 years, according to documents from the state legislature. Heinz Field, where the University of Pittsburgh's Panther football team plays, cost taxpayers $196 million, and Lincoln Financial Field, where Temple Owls play cost taxpayers $181 million (both teams share the field with a pro sports team), according to Brad Humphreys, an economics professor specializing in sports finance at the University of Alberta. The universities could not be reached for comment.
Some states have refused to foot the bill. The University of Washington's plea in 2008 for $150 million from the state to pay for renovations to Husky Stadium, for example, was met with a resounding "no" that same year. The University of Minnesota, University of Pittsburgh and Temple University did not respond to requests for comment.
Even with taxpayer help, colleges are often still forced to take on lots debt to fund these stadiums, says Perko -- a move that can result in higher fees for all students. The Knight Commission has recommended that schools be required to make public their balance sheets, including long-term debts and capital spending. A budget shortfall has to be covered somewhere, and some schools have turned to students. Beginning in 2011 at the University of North Texas, for example, students will pay a $10-per-credit-hour fee -- or $120 for a typical 12-credit semester -- to help cover the cost of a new football stadium. The university did not return calls for comment.
8. "Thanks for the tax breaks!"
Not only are many college football bowl games set up as non-profit entities, which gives them advantageous tax status, they also get subsidies from the state. In recent years, the state of Louisiana has subsidized the Sugar Bowl to the tune of about $1.3 million per year, according to research into their IRS statements by Playoff PAC, which advocates for a playoff system in college football. The Orange Bowl has received subsidies from state and local government worth $600,000 and $1 million per year, and the city of Tempe, Ariz., will subsidize the Fiesta Bowl with nearly $1 million this year, the organization says. "Most bowls are supposed to operate like public charities like the Red Cross does," says Matthew Sanderson, the co-founder of Playoff PAC. "But it's tough to argue that they're a community-based organization."
One reason: Bowl game organizations don't spend quite like the average charity does. CEOs of the biggest bowl games, like the Fiesta Bowl and the Orange Bowl, earn well over $500,000 per year -- more than triple the salary of the average non-profit CEO. In at least one instance, the spending habits of employees of the bowl, especially those of its CEO, have been called into question by its own board of directors: An independent report by a special committee of the Fiesta Bowl's board of directors flagged seemingly lavish spending at the Ritz Carlton and a strip club, as well as "potentially questionable" campaign contributions. The Fiesta Bowl did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Sugar Bowl says that "the last state funding received by the Bowl was in conjunction with its January, 2010 game" and that "the Bowl no longer receives state subsidies" and a spokesman for the Orange Bowl defends its subsidies by saying that the bowl brings in tourism to the area. Both spokesmen defend the CEO compensation by saying that it is determined by a thorough review process.In general, bowl officials defend the subsidies by saying the bowl games generate money for the cities and towns (see No. 9).
9. A national championship? No way
Every year, college football fans clamor for a traditional playoff system and a true "national championship." Yet every year, the number of post-season bowl games seems to expand. (Recent newcomers include the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, held in St. Petersburg, Fla.) There are now 35 bowl games, more than double the number held in 1980. In fact, nearly every major college team with a winning record can now count on a trip to a bowl game, says Fulks.
Why cling to the system, let alone expand it? Money, of course: Big bowl games can generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the cities that host them. Fans in town for the 2011 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl spent about $290 per day in on lodging, food and entertainment; all told, the bowl game generated about $50 million in local sales this year, according to research by Arizona State University. The Tournament of Roses, which produces the Rose Bowl and a few accompanying events like parades, boosted the Southern California economy by more than $370 million in 2005, according to a study by the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Even smaller bowls can be money-makers: The Alamo Bowl brought in an extra $30 million to the San Antonio economy, according to an analysis by research firm SportsEconomics. "Any event that brings in thousands of people will have an impact," says Dan Rascher, president of the firm.
10. That trip to the banana bowl was awfully expensive.
While a bowl game can generate a ton of revenue for the host city, it's not always so lucrative for the participating schools. In fact, some even lose money, particularly if the bowl is held far from campus and the participating schools don't have far-flung alumni who are rabid football fans. Participating in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl landed the University of Connecticut more than $1.6 million in the red, according to a report filed with the NCAA. For its appearance, the school received more than $2.5 million from the Big East conference, which pools and distributes member teams' bowl game earnings, but that wasn't enough to cover the $4.3 million the school spent on marketing, ticket purchases and travel. The university did not respond to requests for comment.
While exact numbers on losses at specific schools are hard come by (a recent NCAA report simply aggregates schools' bowl expenses and revenues), Fulks says that losing money on a bowl game isn't uncommon, especially for teams who play in the smaller bowls. One reason teams often end up shortchanged: To participate, teams are often required to buy a big block of tickets then have trouble selling them, says Perko. In UConn's case, the school spent more than $3.3 million on bowl tickets, but didn't sell $1 million worth of them, according to the report.