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As Long as We Remember...

December 30, 2002

College Sports and Money

Ronald W. Wolf

How important is it for the University of Maryland to sell out its allotment of tickets for the Peach Bowl? The answer: very important--because college football is a big business. But is that good or bad?

As of Christmas, the university had only sold about 13,500 tickets. The Peach Bowl requires universities whose teams are playing to buy 17,500 and the University of Maryland had requested 20,000. The university has to pay for any unsold tickets up to the required 17,500, which at about $55 per ticket, is a chunk of money.

Recorded telephone calls from coach Ralph Freidgen and radio play-by-play man Johnny Holiday reminded Terrapin Club members and university alumni to buy their tickets for the game in Atlanta. If you didnít plan to go, arrangements would be made to donate your tickets to a charity that would distribute the tickets to someone who could go. But you had to buy because it helped the university and the athletic department.

Partly, itís about pride. Having your alma mater go to a bowl game, especially if your team wins, bestows bragging rights, and just as important or if youíre the modest type, feel-good rights. When people feel good about something, they spend money on things such as hats and jackets but also on education foundations that help to endow the arts and humanities department or the new wing of the computer science building.

A new wing on the computer science building means additional students can be admitted to the program or the students already there get better facilities. Better facilities mean more students want to apply to the computer science program. The more demand for student slots means the university can be more selective in the students it admits. Better students become smarter graduates, and graduates with a excellent reputation enhance the reputation of the department. If the reputation of the department is high, better faculty may be attracted.

All that from a winning football team? No, all that from the pride the alumni and regents and state (since Maryland is a state university) have in their university. And if one university in a state system has an excellent reputation, and the state of Maryland has a bunch of state universities, the reputation of others will be enhanced as well. Add to that the need to maintain the reputation of the school and states find funding and not solely for the school with the football team.

How important is pride to the university and the economy of its state. Last year, according to the Baltimore Sun, 60,000 Nebraskans went to the Rose Bowl to watch the University of Nebraska play. The alumni association alone chartered six airplanes to fly 3,000 members. This year, the Nebraska football team struggled--by their standards--and went to the minor Independence Bowl (and lost). The alumni association sent out 10,000 emails urging alumni to make the trip to Shreveport, Louisiana. They got 15 responses and canceled the single planned charter flight. Sales of University of Nebraska T-shirts and hats are off 30 percent for the year. Travel to accompany the team to a bowl game is down. How much money is that lost to the economy of Nebraska and to private support for the university?

Big time college sports have been largely about making money for too long, although that is unlikely to change. The state budget crunch in Maryland is likely to lead to cuts in funding for state universities; campaign pledges that it wonít happen tend to be forgotten. The losses in funding have to be made up from private sources, and if not made up, the quality of education may suffer.

The reason for having big-time moneymaking sports programs is to keep the alumni connected to the university. If the alumni feel connected, they are more likely to contribute money for any number of academic matters, such as endowing chairs, new buildings, or new books for the library.

So what exactly is the economic connection between winning sports teams and private contributions made to universities? We need a study done to compare private donations of universities with successful sports programs to those without. It should be limited to state universities, so we can compare apples to apples. All is needed is for some happy alumnus to fund it. So the Maryland football team better win the Peach Bowl.

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