I'm no CFO but apparently neither are a lot of ADs, accountants and pencil pushers at major-college programs.
|Les Miles is on board for a week-long furlough to help LSU's budget. Will anyone else follow? (Getty Images)|
The first steps seemed sensible: Hiring freezes, salary freezes. It's a no-brainer that football teams stop the moss-covered tradition of staying in a hotel the Friday before a home game. Why it took an economic downturn to strike that one from the books is dumbfounding.
The Big Ten voted to eliminate goodies for players at the annual conference basketball tournament. Somehow those ballers will get along without their swag that included free electronics and luggage.
Conferences are talking about cutting back on media guides, putting them online or eliminating them altogether. Great, but from here on every coach who ever blew a whistle hereby surrenders the right to complain about coverage.
If you eliminate publicity for your program, you eliminate publicity for your program. Don't expect more attention.
Feel better about old State U.'s coffers or are you like me? All this cost-cutting seems to be somewhat symbolic. Sure, it saves some money but a lot of the measures were overdue anyway and, in the end, won't make that much difference. The ADs and their accountants got their departments drowning in red ink, why should anyone trust them to be the life guards?
This is a group that isn't known for its shrewd downsizing. When the last financial pinch hit, ADs cried out to add a regular-season game to the football schedule. They defend a postseason that has stuffed an all-time high 34 bowl games.
Someone is still paying for something.
That someone is us and the something is college football and basketball. Everything else is filler. Athletic departments exist to squeeze as much money as possible out of their cash cows -- basketball and football.
They are constricted by having to follow the NCAA mandate of sponsoring 14 sports (at least seven must be women's sports). That's the NCAA minimum for Division I membership. They are burdened by academic, legal (Title IX) and ethical forces that try to balance big-budget quasi pro-sports with graduation rates.
They finance (at least) 12 money-losing propositions in hope that one or two others pan out to support the entire department. That kind of business model goes against every economic tenet ever taught.
It works at Ohio State and Texas. It doesn't at New Mexico State, Florida International and most everywhere else. Even when football teams are winning national championships, there are only a handful of athletic departments making money. The average Division I department lost $5.7 million in 2007, at least a year before the economy became an issue. That was up from an average $4.1 million loss in 2004.
Where was the screaming then? Florida State president T.K. Wetherell had it right last summer when he stated plainly: We'll have a football playoff when the financial hardships get bad enough.
A playoff will be a lot easier to rationalize, he said, when everybody is running out of money -- fast. That's the college mentality: It has only one commodity when market forces apply: Play more games. The NCAA basketball tournament expanded because it could. The interest from television and sponsors was there.
No matter what you think of the BCS, it has been wildly successful in the areas where it counts -- delivering ratings and attracting sponsors. The sport is at its financial peak. That explains why while schools are trying to cut back elsewhere, the number of bowls keeps growing. Orlando wants three.
Departments continue to lose money because it costs more to fill the van for the track team. Hotel expenses are higher for the softball team. It's clear we haven't reached critical mass yet. The suits will continue to trim from the fringes. A travel budget here. A wrestling team there. But never touching the central treasury of football and basketball.
Essentially, the two cash cows give athletic departments the right to lose money. They are the department.
The Pac-10 delivered a telling message recently when it asked the NCAA to consider reducing the number of games in every sport -- except basketball (men's and women's), women's volleyball and ... football.
In the same economy that has caused it to recommend these cuts, the Pac-10 is considering starting its own network. That network would be built on telecasts of football and basketball. No wonder the Pac-10 wants those schedules untouched.
It's hard to get the answer right when the question is so messed up. The same NCAA that is cutting travel costs and has a hiring freeze is looking into adding sand volleyball as a sport.
Sand volleyball? Adds opportunity. Sucks the life out of a budget.
As I said, I'm no expert but apparently neither are the guys and gals running a lot of these departments. That hit home last week when it was discovered that former Kansas State AD Bob Krause was allowed to set up the former football coach with a $3.2 million parachute.
Start, then, with these meaningful measures to begin balancing athletic department budgets:
Cut football scholarships: Start with 10 across the board. That's lowering the scholarship limit from 85 to 75 in I-A. Tell me what athletic department couldn't use an extra $1 million. That's multiplying 10 extra football scholarships by $25,000 annual tuition multiplied by four years. The savings would be less at some places, more in others.
Take the money and redistribute it to the minor sports. The coaches, of course, will scream but they screamed when the limits were at 120. Somehow the sport survived. Their opinion doesn't count much because as scholarship limits have been lowered, the sport has gotten better.
Furloughs for coaches: What do coaches always say when they're asked about their outrageous salaries? They're market driven.
What does the market say now? No one is worth what they're being paid. Employees are being laid off, taking salary cuts. Employees in various industries are being made to take an unpaid leave.
If coaches were truly reacting to the market, they would become a part of the cost savings. Donate a week's salary to the athletic department. LSU coach Les Miles already has said he is OK with a week-long furlough for all campus employees to offset $34 million in budget cuts.
A week of Miles' pay is worth $72,000. The entire staff would be giving up $108,000.
Here's a challenge for the American Football Coaches Association: put your money where the market is. Call on your head coaches (at least) to donate a week's salary to the athletic department. It would be a show of good faith. Football helping the athletic department in these tough times.
Somehow I don't think it's going to get done, but it should.
Really trim the fat: A Division I-A football squad can do without nine coaches. When a major basketball program leaves the floor at halftime, take a look at the ratio of players to coaches and managers. If this were the classroom there would be one-on-one teaching.
Plus, do athletic departments really need all those assistant/associate ADs? Internal relations, external relations, fundraising, marketing. Start chopping.
The money for that sand volleyball team has to come from somewhere.