I’ve always been a fan of sports. I’m a great spectator though, not a participant. When my dad coached little league, I learned how to keep score with all the stats. I grew up watching OU (University of Oklahoma) football. In college, I could go to OU games, but, even better, I could attend world-class, Olympic-level gymnastic matches since Bart Connor was on the team. I watched professional bowling on TV, mostly because I was waiting to watch Wide World of Sports. I loved the variety. I used to love watching every bit of Olympic coverage I could. The coverage was so different in the 60s and 70s. It was less about the medal count and getting Up Close and Personal with the athletes and more just watching full matches and covering as many different sports as possible. I even watched boxing because in the Olympics it was about scoring points not about beating each other to a pulp, I watch less of the Olympics every year, but I’m still a sports fan.
On the other hand, like anyone who has worked on campus, I’m acutely aware of the pros and cons of collegiate athletics. The team experience can be amazing for so many student-athletes. Athletics is a route for students to a college degree and a way to welcome the external community to campus. At the same time, athletes are often pulled away from being part of the campus community by their obligations. And particularly on mid-size campuses, the cost of athletic programs can pull campus budgets out of balance. And that doesn’t include the pressure to win at all costs leading to all sort of problems.
And yet, I continue to enjoy collegiate athletics. I loved watching students I knew participating in their sports. And while my family thought it was hilarious that a Division I athletic program reported to me while I was vice president for Student Affairs at UTSA, it was as much fun as it was hard work and I loved supporting the students and teams through my work and in person.
Which is why I’m concerned about Division I athletics these days and I have been for a while. During my growing up years, we only got to see our favorite teams on TV a few times during the season. We did get to watch the bands at half-time though. Of course, there weren’t nearly so many television stations with hours to fill. But then TV options expanded, and the money did too. And then decisions changed. Football on a Thursday night may have disrupted the academic schedule, but if offered the revenues from a TV slot, why not?
The latest conference realignment is just the most recent iteration of the same process. I’ve heard the OU president say the move to the SEC was due to financial necessity. I’m sure that’s true. But I’ve also listened to Athletic leaders on multiple campuses worry about the fan experience while the decisions they make often have a detrimental effect on that very experience. Sitting through a game that is nearly doubled in length due to television commercials (I was so tired of sitting through commercial breaks one hot UT game, that I timed them) is often deadly dull and that’s before you add in 100 degree heat or thirty-two degree freezing snow. And national athletic conferences instead of regional ones will have another negative effect on both the fan experience and the student athlete experience as travel to any event will be further, longer, and more expensive.
It’s beginning to feel like we’re killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. We’ve certainly seem to have forgotten the reasons for the programs. If fans get tired of attending games or spending the ever-increasing amounts of money tickets require, it begins to be less and less of a community event. Then Athletics ceases to serve as a ‘front door’ to the campus. And general students, as well as student athletes, and campuses begin to lose some of the positive effects of athletics. And that would be a shame.
I certainly don’t have an answer to this conundrum and I’m not saying anything particularly new here. But as I watched three football games this weekend and read various articles about the latest round of conference mix and match, I was reminded of sitting in those scalding hot stands, timing the commercial breaks. And I kept wondering, how long can this be sustained? What will be the breaking point?
And, in case you think this doesn’t apply to anything other than athletics, here are a few questions to consider. What decisions are you making about finances in the name of keeping a program alive while at the same time changing the very nature of the thing you are trying to save because the source of funds has changed? Does a fun run become something less fun when there are big prizes at the end? Is a donor asking for too much control of the content of a leadership workshop when we put their name on it as a thank you for that lovely gift?
Longtime Student Affairs leader, Peggy Barr, once told me that a primary rule in fundraising is “Don’t accept anything that eats.” After all you’ll have to keep feeding it. This may include the security and insurance for a painting, rather than an animal. But it can also mean shifting the priorities and skewing the purposes of any number of important campus efforts. It seems to me there are lessons from intercollegiate athletics that we should be paying attention to in our own decision-making. Have you accepted a gift that eats?