D1 athletics often cost schools more money than they make and don’t serve as a draw for potential or current students.
Schools that have D1 athletics absolutely love to point out that they have D1 athletics. They love talking to parents and potential students about D1 athletics, they love having one whole ad (!) air over national TV because of D1 athletics, they love building expensive new facilities and spending exorbitantly on the athletes who participate in their D1 athletics. They just love the idea of D1 athletics so much that they never stop to consider an interesting possibility: maybe they shouldn’t have D1 athletics.
What do we know about the fiduciary state of college sports? As booming as the industry may seem to the casual observer, with gargantuan television deals and merchandise everywhere you look, a shockingly small percentage of athletics programs are actually profitable. A 2015 study from the NCAA itself identified just 24 schools out of 346 in Division 1 that generated positive net revenue, and while the study did not name any of the specific schools that were operating in the black, it’s a fair assumption to make that TU, the smallest FBS school in the country, was not among them.
Why then do we subsidize college athletics in the first place? It’s a fair question to ask, not just for TU but for all of the other 1,000+ NCAA programs that lose money year-after-year. A lot of it has to with exposure and advertising, creating a national brand for the school that will ideally attract a diverse body of students from across the country. It’s a nice idea in principle, but you have to wonder how effective this strategy is for the vast majority of schools that aren’t athletic powerhouses like Alabama or North Carolina. I’m just one person, but as far as anecdotal case studies to test this idea go, I’m a pretty good one coming from New England. When I told my classmates and teachers that I would be attending the University of Tulsa, the most common response I received was “Where?” In other words, I would venture to say that TU’s reputation for excellence remains confined to a regional level rather than national. And I doubt a trip to the Miami Beach Bowl would change that.
Athletics are also said to be important to student morale, but again, I wonder how true this actually is. As a member of the marching and pep bands, I go to most of the games for our highest-profile and best attended sports, football and men’s basketball. How many students do you think are left in the stands when it’s a hot day, or when the football team is down at the half, or when basketball is playing a so-so opponent? How many attend women’s basketball even when the athletic department gives away free clothing items? I couldn’t give you an exact figure, but the answer wouldn’t be pretty.
The truth of the matter might be that we just don’t have a large enough student body to make sporting events any sort of meaningful campus activity. And I know that it’s a nice thing to be able to brag to prospective students on tours that we are D1, but honestly, did anyone choose to come here for the sports? Again, we’re not Alabama.
Let me also note that I am referring above to the general student population. I do not mean to imply that student-athletes, many of whom would not be here were it not for their respective teams, are not real students. But obviously every student currently studying at TU would be allowed to finish, and it’s not as if the school would have to resign itself to having a student population one-tenth smaller in the future. They would instead simply take in fewer students whose primary focus is on athletics. Is that such a crime?
That probably sounds like sacrilege coming from the sports editor, and maybe it is. I confess I don’t know a whole lot about the inner workings of our athletic department (I’m not sure anybody outside of the administration does) or what it would take for us to drop out of the American Athletic Conference. This is more of an exploratory idea, a vague pitch to the people who have the knowledge and authority to make this change to at least reconsider the status quo.