It’s Sink or Swim

“It should be absolutely clear that solutions to the financial problems are not going to be found by reducing the level of the major institutions to that of the institutions not currently attractive on television, attractive to bowl officials, or sufficiently talented to play in NCAA basketball tournaments.”

Author: Don Canham

The University of Michigan, under the leadership of athletic director Don Canham, has one of the most financially secure athletic programs in the country. Canham and his program at Michigan were the subjects of a long article in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated. Canham is an articulate spokesman for those who believe universities can conduct numerous athletic programs and still remain financially sound.

Intercollegiate athletics is facing one of the most crucial periods in its history. Because of severe financial crises, schools across the country have dropped sports, reduced scholarships, restricted team budgets and eliminated fringes which were normally regarded as essential to their programs. The days of surplus funds on campus, let alone in athletic departments, have disappeared, and universities throughout the land are facing and instituting cutbacks in all phases of their programs. Athletic programs have become focal points simply because they are in the public eye.

The seriousness of the situation was emphasized by the recent special NCAA convention where the agenda dealt solely with cost-cutting. While this convention did not solve many problems, it did illustrate that most schools realize that if we are going to keep intercollegiate athletics alive, we must put our houses in order. However, the continuing difficulty is that with a 700-member NCAA we have little hope of passing legislation satisfactory to all. The concerns of Albion College or Valparaiso University are quite different from the concerns of Michigan, Notre Dame or Southern California.

There are approximately 60 schools in the nation operating on multimillion-dollar budgets and competing on levels that are relatively the same. The other 700 NCAA schools do not have the same outlook and do not spend the same amount of money as the major schools. This obvious difference in the operating levels of big and small NCAA institutions leaves the future of intercollegiate athletics in doubt.

Unrest in the NCAA has been accentuated again by recent voting. For instance, several years ago freshmen were declared eligible for intercollegiate competition in football, basketball and other sports primarily by a deciding vote of the smaller schools. The major institutions across the country, for academic or other reasons, were largely opposed to playing freshmen. This illustrates how major institutions often cannot control their own destinies.

The most disruptive aspect of this problem is exemplified by three proposals by President Stephen Horn of California State University, Long Beach. These proposals were presented to the NCAA Convention in August and will be voted on in January. In brief, Horn’s philosophy is that the major institutions owe support to the smaller schools. He proposes that television money received by the major institutions be shared with all football-playing NCAA schools, that all bowl money be shared and that all NCAA basketball tournament money be shared with smaller schools.

If any of Horn’s proposals should pass, it would portend disaster for all major institutions. For example, when the University of Michigan plays Ohio State University on national television, the revenue from that game is about $480,000, which is shared with the Big Ten conference. They are our “family.” Under the Horn proposal, as I understand it, about $45,000 would go to the playing institutions and the remaining $400,000-plus would be distributed throughout the NCAA. I am sure Father Joyce and Ed Krause of Notre Dame would greet this proposal with less than enthusiasm. Horn’s television proposal would, of course, destroy the television package primarily because some of the major schools would have no interest in playing on television for 50 per cent of $45,000. Gate receipts alone for a televised game would be damaged to a greater degree than could be compensated by a $45,000 settlement.

These proposals illustrate the wide differences of opinion existing in the NCAA. When we discuss the future of intercollegiate athletics, these philosophical differences muddy the issue. It is my personal opinion that unless the major institutions are structured within the NCAA as a separate operating unit wherein they can vote to control their own destinies, the NCAA faces blanket reorganization or virtual dissolution. Longtime NCAA supporters are apprehensive that the future may hold even a completely new organization comprised of major institutions only, and outside of the NCAA. This dismal prospect is presented because the vote of the entire membership is required to form a separate, autonomous unite of major institutions within the NCAA, and in the past the “majors” have had difficulty getting votes on particular problems from the entire membership. Similar resistance may be encountered in getting an autonomous major institutions group within the organization.

Should this separate unit within the NCAA not develop, or should any one of the three Horn proposals pass at the January convention, some feel that there will be a definite move on the part of major conferences, plus the major independents such as Notre Dame, Penn State, South Carolina and others, to withdraw from the NCAA and form a new organization. The new group would be composed of major schools with similar problems, like programs and corresponding philosophies. Hopefully, this breach will not occur, but it has reached the discussion stage.

It should be evident that under the Horn proposal, athletics in schools such as Michigan and Notre Dame could not survive financially if they lost the largest share of their television revenue. It should be absolutely clear that solutions to the financial problems of the nation’s athletic programs are not going to be found by reducing the level of the major institutions to that of the institutions not currently attractive on television, attractive to bowl officials, or sufficiently talented to play in NCAA basketball tournaments.

While it is felt that the Horn proposals have little support, we can never be certain. Many of us are disturbed by the philosophy of “share-the-wealth” proposals offered by President Horn and the compromises that may result. One tends naturally to look to his own situation, and at the University of Michigan, we produce $3 million per year in revenue in our football program. Our sports budgets have bene built on this constant source of income. I assume that most major institutions have the same structure. Our football program cannot support most of our other athletic programs and also “share the wealth” with 700 other schools. We must maintain and expand our sources of revenue, not diminish them. By “sharing the wealth” with members of the NCAA, we would accomplish the opposite. In the end, we would drop sports, cut scholarships and eventually ruin the very revenue sources (football and basketball) that provide us with these vast athletic programs.

Women’s interest in intercollegiate sports must be included in the future of intercollegiate athletics. Obviously, the vast expansion of women’s intercollegiate athletics necessitates a vast funding program. Intercollegiate football, basketball and hockey will probably be called upon to finance women’s programs at most schools.

We have made some progress in cost-cutting in order to prepare for the increased costs of including women’s programs, but some of us are apprehensive about the possible harm of too-great cutbacks in our revenue-producing sports as times become more gloomy. A recent survey showed that in 10 years, tuition at most institutions will be 100 per cent higher than it is today. The future cost of the athletic scholarship program can thus be predicted. We will undoubtedly see a further reduction in the scholarship program for nonrevenue sports. Scholarships for golf, tennis, track, baseball and other nonrevenue sports will, in my opinion, eventually disappear because increased costs cannot be borne with the addition of women’s programs and because of future inflation.

One great concern is that, under its current structure, the NCAA may cut back our major football programs to the extent that revenue is reduced. I shudder when I think that we might return to one-platoon football as more football scholarships are voted out of our programs. We must field “specialists” and play two-platoon football which, at the present time, is the greatest game in the history of intercollegiate sports. We must, however, also concentrate on other areas. All schools are having problems. Recently, for instance, Syracuse University dropped four varsity sports, and almost all institutions have begun to cut back on scholarships awarded for nonrevenue sports. Recent NCAA legislation and restrictions on nonrevenue scholarships will be helpful, but it is my considered opinion that these cover only one area of economy. Many more things can be done to conserve money and keep our great programs going—things we have not done.

In the area of recruiting, for example, the recent NCAA convention did not face up to the problem. There are schools in this country spending well over a quarter-of-a-million dollars per year to recruit athletes. We must recognize the fact that if we are to survive we must do something about our recruiting costs. We now find our coaches on the road virtually the entire year, and if we were all restricted to three or four weeks of recruiting, we could conserve thousands of dollars at every institution without damaging our programs.

In conclusion, when we consider what the future of intercollegiate athletics holds, we must, through necessity, look at the economics of our situation first. It is our major problem and one that will not improve. It will become infinitely worse unless we find leadership in solving our financial problems. If we solve them, intercollegiate athletics can do nothing but expand. Interest on the part of women and the whole student body is greater than ever before. We are finding more students in club sports, and more students attending our games at almost every institution in the country. We must do what we can to encourage this movement, and if we can solve our internal problems the future of intercollegiate athletics will be bright indeed.