There is no doubt that sports vary significantly. Golf and weightlifting, for example, have very little in common. That said, one idea that is constant in all sports is that winning is everything. There are many clichés to represent this, but it is true that just about every competitive athlete will say that second place is just the first loser. If this ideology is the same for sports business, it is clear that football is the winner in the United States. The competition would not even be close. The NBA and MLB may pretend that they are just as relevant as the NFL, but this is clearly not the case. This year’s Super Bowl scored a whopping 45.0 television rating. In comparison, the highest rated game from the last World Series only scored a 13.5 rating even though last year’s Fall Classic pitted New York and Philadelphia, two of the largest television markets, against each other. The highest rated game from the last NBA Finals only netted a 9.4 rating. In fact, the cumulative total of all five NBA Finals games from last year, 42.0, is still below the Super Bowl’s rating!
Although football and men’s basketball are often lumped together as the revenue sports at the collegiate level, football is still the singular dominant sport on campus. The last BCS National Championship football game ended up scoring a 17.2 television rating. Although that rating is a far cry from the Super Bowl’s 45.0 rating, it is higher than anything the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NASCAR scored in recent years. It’s also significantly higher than the 10.8 rating that the last NCAA National Championship Game for men’s basketball scored.
Football’s powerful position on campus means that football isn’t just one of many college sports offered by universities, it is the sport that sets the tone for the athletics department. Division I-A (FBS) schools are allowed to award scholarships to 85 players on their football team. Almost all of these scholarships are full scholarships. These 85 full scholarships are often more than half of all the men’s athletic scholarships offered by a particular school. Men’s non-revenue sports usually end up splitting their scholarships. The end result is that although there might be a number of non-football male scholarship athletes, the athletes are only getting a small fraction of their educational expenses covered by the school.
The way scholarships are awarded seems highly dubious. Why is a third string quarterback, who may not play a single down all season, getting a full scholarship when some of the best water polo, soccer, and tennis athletes in the nation receive a pittance? It is probably not for academic reasons because Division I non-revenue athletes, with the possible exception of baseball, consistently have higher graduation rates than football players even though the non-revenue athletes have to fund some of their academics out of their own pockets. There isn’t a legitimate football reason why Division I-A football needs 85 full scholarship athletes. NFL teams carry 53 players during the regular season, but it is extremely, extremely rare to see a team run out of players during a single game.
Not surprisingly, one of the reasons for the generous scholarship limit has to do with power. The big-time college football programs do not want to share their recruits with smaller program schools. Powerful schools can give athletes who they know do not have a role on the team a full scholarship just to prevent that player from boosting the talent level at a smaller program. Not only would that weaken their dominant status on the field, but it would probably break their stranglehold on the prime BCS type bowl games if smaller programs start qualifying for BCS bowls at higher rates.
Another reason for the inequitable distribution of athletic scholarships is that the third string quarterback is more important to the athletics department and university administration than the best athletes on non-revenue teams. Usually the athletics director, university president, and university board will not feel much heat if the water polo team is surprisingly uncompetitive. On the other hand, if the third string quarterback has to play for some reason and does not play well, you can guarantee that fans, including some wealthy donors, will raise a fuss. Although it is unlikely, it is possible that a third string quarterback could be the difference between an athletics director or college president keeping or losing their job if one of them is on the hot seat. Because of this, universities are going to take care of their football benchwarmers.
Women’s sports do see some benefits from football. After all, many women’s teams exist solely to balance athletic scholarships. Unfortunately, individual female athletes often have to share small pieces of scholarships just like the male non-revenue athletes. Also, schools are picking the cheapest women’s and men’s non-revenue sports, like bowling and competitive cheer, to maximize the amount of money that can be spent on sports like football. Although football may generate huge television ratings, the revenue from football is usually less than football expenses because schools are so eager to field competitive football teams. The perception that football funds non-revenue sports is almost universally false once the true cost of football is considered.
It seems that the public has an insatiable thirst for football. As odd as it may seem, many turn to universities to fulfill their football desires. The universities are eager to please, but it comes at a cost since the football the public wants is not a profitable enterprise for schools. Although some sports can thank football for their continued existence on campus due to Title IX and NCAA minimum team count requirements, it may be time for sporting federations in the United States to look beyond academia. Non-revenue sports will always be the stepchild at schools that sponsor big-time football and men’s basketball. They aren’t going to be promoted by the universities because promotion would take money and energy away from the sport or sports that actually matter to athletic and university administration. It seems obvious to say that no sport will come close to challenging football’s popularity any time soon, but it is possible that sporting federations and leagues can carve a niche for themselves if they take control of their rules and promotion. After all, many professional sporting leagues have survived and thrived in the football obsessed sporting world. This will be a real challenge without the subsidies that universities provide, but on the other hand, those subsidies are becoming as insignificant as the third string quarterback’s usefulness in football games.
Ashlen Dube operates the Other Side Sports website. Other Side Sports is dedicated to studying the interaction of sports and education. Visitors of all experience levels are encouraged to contribute their opinions on the new Other Side Sports forum.