America’s colleges and universities spend far more money per year on athletes than they do on students, according to a new issue brief from the Delta Cost Project. At public colleges and universities, college sports were “a $6 billion enterprise” in 2010, according to the study, and expensive coaching contracts, facilities upgrades, staff additions, and larger scholarship commitments are driving those costs even higher. Athletics expenses are eating into school budgets, as athletic departments at colleges and universities often require subsidies to cover all their expenses.
Athletic departments spent three to six times more per athlete than colleges and universities spend educating the average individual student, the study found. In the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), college football’s top division, athletic departments spent roughly $92,000 per athlete in 2010, compared to less than $14,000 per full-time student. And the gap between the amount spent on each athlete (blue line) and the amount spent on each student (green) has grown substantially in the last five years:
The study also found that athletic departments were increasingly depending on subsidies from their colleges and universities to cover expenses. As the chart above shows, the average amount institutions subsidize per athlete has grown nearly $7,000 in the last five years. And as the chart below illustrates, athletic departments as a whole are relying on bigger subsidies, with the bottom tier of FBS schools (those that rarely compete for a championship but participate in the top division anyway) relying more on subsidies from their colleges and universities than the big-name schools at the top:
Athletic spending has grown twice as fast as academic spending at these schools, and even as academic spending slowed when university budgets were crunched by the Great Recession, athletic spending continued to grow in most divisions (incidentally, FBS was the exception). In the six biggest conferences, per athlete spending tops $100,000 a year.
The study notes that winning athletic programs are often tied to increases in revenues, from increased donations and ticket sales to higher enrollment rates (and thus more tuition and student fees). Those affects, though, are often “quite modest.” And the study does not answer whether the increased subsidization of athletics provides substantial benefits to the university, or to the success of the athletics program. What is clear, as The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann notes, is that the rapid growth of athletic budgets is costing taxpayers millions of dollars a year.