Knight Commission: Has the Economy Doomed The Era of 24/7 College Sports Coverage?

By Carolyn Braff

The current
economic climate has hit collegiate athletics harder than many other sectors,
and that pain was discussed at this week’s meeting of the Knight Commission on
Intercollegiate Athletics at the Newseum in Washington,
D.C. The meeting’s two public
sessions, attended by representatives from more than two dozen Division I athletic
programs, focused on the financial challenges facing intercollegiate athletics.
Based on the discussion, it may be time for college sports programming to take
a step back.
“As we look
forward, it’s going to be very difficult for us to come up with new revenue
streams to offset our escalating expenses,” explains Tim Curley, who is in his
16th year as the athletic director at the Pennsylvania State
University. “We are in a
mode right now where we are 24/7, 365 with sports, and I think at some point,
we need to see if there might be some way to give some relief to that.”
Curley
believes that the dollar amounts spent on multimedia rights contracts have hit
their peak, so athletic departments can no longer count on television revenue
as a steadily increasing stream. These next three-to-five years, he says, are
going to be trying times.

Finding (And Funding) A Staff
The rising
tide of coaches’ salaries — especially for Division I football — and
the increased staff required to meet the demand for video production is another
set of challenges athletic departments must face.
”Not just
coaching salaries, but salaries across the board certainly have risen at a very
high rate,” Curley says. “In the revenue sports, we have professional leagues
that are continuing to take people away from our campuses and we’re trying to
compete to hold onto those people. If you’re going to be in the game, you’ve
got to respond to the market.”
The market
now demands not just a top-notch coaching staff, but also a talented crew to
produce the scoreboard show, and a coaches’ video staff to record every
practice and game for instant review. To date, Curley says, the public has
responded to these needs through private donations and paying for preferred
seat licensing, but how much longer will the fans continue to offer that
support? And could those resources be better used, given that more programs are
now being forced to cut back on Olympic sports to save the headline programs?
“If
adjustments are not made, we will see a reduction in both men’s and women’s
programs in the next three-to-five years,” Curley says. “I believe Olympic
men’s sports will see the biggest reductions, and many programs that will be
offered in the Olympic category will return to club sports status, or even
intramural programs.”
Competitive Balance
Given the
inflationary practice of hiring — and compensating — a head
football coach, many athletic departments, including those represented at the
Knight Commission meeting, are now questioning how many varsity programs are
realistic for a Division I school.
“Based on
the revenue base of intercollegiate athletics, there is no reason that they
should be able to compete with professional sports,” explains John Cheslock,
associate professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. “But the expectation is that
you’re going to compete with the professional leagues for these coaches.”

With
athletic departments relying more and more on private donations to survive,
winning the press conference, Cheslock says, has become almost as important as
winning on the field.

Bad News For the Little Guys
Programs
whose coaches make less than $1 Million annually are far from immune to these
financial challenges. Increasing expenses across the board, ranging from campus
utilities and game-day security to medical malpractice insurance and airline
bag-check fees, are threatening the livelihood of all intercollegiate athletic
teams.
“The growth
rate in expenditure on intercollegiate athletics is at least double that of the
growth rate of expenditures for the university as a whole,” explains William
“Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and co-chairman
of the Knight Commission. “That’s obviously not sustainable.”
Light At This End of the Tunnel
Still, despite
all of these challenges, Curley believes that right now, the state of college
athletics is the strongest he has ever seen it.
“The
visibility of our programs is at an all-time high,” Curley says. “TV, Internet,
and new media continue to evolve to connect our many constituencies in real
time. Our ability to tell our story and to brand our product has never been
better. Our revenue sports are healthy, attendance is up, television exposure
is comprehensive, and TV ratings remain strong.”
How long
the industry can sustain that strength, however, will be answered in the next
three years.