Should Institutions Support Sports Programs That Don’t Make Money? | Just Explain It to Me!

  • Access to education. According to the NCAA, approximately 180,000 of 460,000 student athletes received $3.6 billion in scholarships. That sounds wonderful. But how does this compare to the nonathlete student? Individual institutions should analyze if student athletes benefit disproportionately from non-student athletes when it comes to access. Who is benefiting? “College Sports Are Affirmative Action for Rich White Students,” by Saahil Desai, published by The Atlantic on Oct. 23, 2018, presents a view worth considering.
  • Extracurricular opportunities. Numerous studies illustrate the benefits of student participation in extracurricular activities, including increased likelihood of academic achievement and the positive effects on character and social development. Athletics is only one type of extracurricular activity. Institutions should ask how many students are served by sports programs, including student athletes and student spectators, and how much it costs per student. How do those numbers compare to other extracurricular activities? It may be surprising to find other activities engage more students for less money and would provide greater value if invested in more adequately.
  • Co-curricular programs. Athletic programs can be an essential training ground for academic disciplines, including sports medicine, sports management, physical therapy, kinesiology and engineering. So, the question for an individual institution is whether the athletics program is formally tied to academic departments and what is the value to nonathlete students? Does it present hands-on learning opportunities valuable to student success? How many students benefit? Is support given to these disciplines in terms of faculty and instruction?
  • A marketing tool for enrollment. Many elements must align for an institution’s enrollment to benefit from athletic programs. Every institution must ask, what is the best return on investment for this institution? Should an institution invest millions into athletic programs on the promise of a winning season or media airtime? The return on investment might be a better bet for some institutions if the focus was on other enrollment strategies. Brittany Renee Mayes and Emily Giambalvo wrote an interesting piece for The Washington Post on Dec. 6, 2018, “Does sports glory create a spike in college applications? It’s not a slam dunk.
  • Engagement of alumni and friends. The purpose of engagement with alumni and friends is to encourage philanthropic giving. Does your institution have the data necessary to determine if attending or viewing athletic contests is tied to giving-not just giving to athletics but to the school in general? What percentage of support for athletics comes from charitable giving? Without data from your institution, the benefit of engagement via athletics remains theoretical. Institutions should be wary of highly vocal individuals or groups that may represent a minority position and who use hyperbole to influence decisions about sports programs because of possible impact on giving.

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Kathy Johnson Bowles

Kathy Johnson Bowles

CEO, board member, advancement & strategy expert, scholar, nationally recognized artist — 32 years experience in higher education and not-for-profit management.