UAB Tackles Football: Right Decision for the Wrong Reasons

This week, UAB became the first NCAA FBS (formerly Division IA) university to drop its football program. Despite becoming bowl eligible for the first time in ten years this season, the university administration decided that football was no longer affordable. In a news release, UAB President Ray Watts said that “football is simply not sustainable.” Predictably, the national media picked up on this theme and a series of stories highlighted the escalating costs associated with big time college athletics.  These articles also questioned the viability of football for schools like UAB. Although a compelling storyline, I argue that there is more than meets the eye in the case of UAB. Clearly, the escalating expenses of college sports and football in particular are problematic. As a result, the move to drop football is likely the right one for UAB, but I believe this right decision was made for the wrong reasons.

I believe UAB’s calculus on the financial viability of football is largely correct. Let’s begin by looking at the revenue and expenses of college athletics.

It is incredibly difficult to get data about athletics budgets. The USA Today has the best information readily available. According to their data, only a handful of universities generate profits inside of athletics.

The problem with understanding athletics revenues and expenses is the idea of university subsidy. For example, let’s take the University of Wisconsin, which has the second highest revenue of any athletics department with $149,141,405. Department expenses are $146,659,187 and as a result the department made a profit of $2,482,218. Not bad, right?

But, the department received $7,859,675 in university subsidy. This means the rest of the university sent nearly $8 million to the department to cover operations.

Some of this money can be justified by providing free tickets to students, but largely this is the university giving money to the athletics department to fund its budget.

Others would argue that the halo effect of athletics in terms of prestige and marketing justifies the expense from the university. No matter the validity of such claims, it is evident that this isn’t true revenue (like ticket sales or television contracts).

Why do we care about this?

Wisconsin athletics didn’t make $149,141,405 in revenue, they actually made $141,281,730 because the university support isn’t real revenue.

It is taking money from the university. When we use this more accurate revenue number, Wisconsin lost almost $5.4 million.

If the University of Wisconsin can’t make money, what hope does a school like UAB have?

Not much of one.

There are only a handful of universities and all in the major athletics conferences that legitimately claim to make money in athletics. Everyone else is either using funny math by counting the university subsidy or are reporting an actual loss.

Despite the high revenue numbers, the expenses exceed the costs for nearly every university.

The bottom line: university athletics almost never make financial sense.

For the supporters of UAB football that claim everyone loses money, this argument doesn’t hold water to me. As my mother would say, if everyone else is jumping off a bridge, does that mean you should too?

UAB has had much more success with its basketball program. The team has shown success in March Madness and historically has been the better program for the university. Focusing on building up basketball would seem to be a much more worthwhile endeavor.

So you may be asking, if I find the university’s argument regarding to continuing financial viability of football compelling, why do I say it is the right decision for the wrong reason?

Frankly, I do not believe the university’s president and administration regarding the impetus for considering the elimination of the football team.

As Jon Solomon compellingly writes, is the board of trustees behind the effort to kill UAB football?

I’m not seeking out a conspiracy, but a number of decisions lead me to believe that this decision was about far more than athletics expenditures.

First, the facts as I see them and largely reported in the media:

In 2006, UAB agreed to a contract with Jimbo Fisher (currently the head coach at Florida State). The University of Alabama System Board of Trustees would not agree to the contract. As Greg Doyel of CBS Sports wrote at the time, Paul Bryant, Jr. may well have played a hand in the decision in part because the University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus may have wanted to hire Fisher.

In 2011, then UAB President Carol Garrison came up with a plan to build an on campus football stadium for $60 million. UAB plays in one of the most run down stadiums in the country that surely limits attendance and fan support. Garrison proposed the stadium, but the board never seriously considered the proposal. Garrison left the university in 2012 amid rumors of a breakdown between her, the system office, and the board. How much did her push for the stadium and football help cause the breakdown?

In reading the CarrSports report on UAB athletics, I find the report lacking and insufficient. Moreover, I find that it reads more of a plan to kill off football rather than to weigh the evidence on either side. I find that the report is not rigorous enough to avoid the inevitable questions that will arise from the conclusions drawn from it. I do not believe any argument in the report would justify the football decision unless that decision was made prior to or independent of the report.

UAB President Ray Watts said at the press conference that recently hired UAB football coach Bill Clark was fully informed about the strategic planning process that might lead to closing the football program. This just doesn’t make sense. Why would a coach of Clark’s caliber (he was at the time coaching a potential national title candidate in FCS) leave for such a risk? Clark benefits from the turnaround this year, but that is a big risk for a coach. It seems unlikely he was fully informed about the possibility.

I am not willing to go as far as some UAB supporters in saying that the board is killing football to materially hurt UAB as an undergraduate institution for fear that it could become more popular or prestigious than its sister campus in Tuscaloosa. The burden of proof for me to make such a claim is pretty high and I don’t see such evidence.

However, the circumstantial evidence regarding UAB football for nearly a decade suggests an active agenda on the part of the board or other individuals to limit the athletics success of UAB.

This is more than benign neglect, but a series of strategies and decisions to limit (at least some) of the institutional aspirations that UAB holds for itself.

It may be entirely appropriate for the board to make such decisions, but they owe it to the state to be more transparent if that’s the case.

Until there is more transparency and an accounting for the decisions being made, simply agreeing with the difficult math regarding football is insufficient to answer all of my questions.

Dropping football is probably the right decision, but I do believe it was done for the wrong reasons.

Until President Watts, Chancellor Witt, and the board provide more transparency and improved communication, I am inclined to believe those that suggest there is an agenda to limit the potential of UAB.