Are Maryland sports headed for leaner times?

I don’t have a lot of what you might call business acumen. I have no appetite for what some might refer to as “financial news.” I’m not someone who’s going to “check the stock ticker” for “hot tips” about a “company.” I “spend my money” like a “drunken sailor,” with little regard for “long-term prospects.” Instead of a “bank,” I keep my savings in “the toilet tank” of my “bathroom.” If I catch you poking around my toilet tank, I will “brain” you with a “tire iron.”

Nevertheless, I’ve been reading with interest a recent article series in the Orlando Sentinel about the economics of big-time college sports in the current economy. In part 1 of the series, who should be quoted but one Dr. William Kirwan, chancellor of a little system called the University of Maryland. His somewhat omnipotent position means his opinion might be somewhat important. Let’s take a look:

“Universities across the country are on the horns of a dilemma. We’ve built this enterprise with an insatiable appetite but we no longer have the revenue to feed it. We’re going to have to come to grips with that fact and move to a more rational model.”

Hmmm. The horns of a dilemma, you say. I can relate. Because I find myself astride the saddle of dubiousness, nervously eyeing the bucking flanks of programmatic instability. A more rational model for our athletic programs? Step back from the brink, doctor. After all, those posh new luxury suites don’t just undersell themselves. That takes capital, my friend. The mean green. The almighty somolean.

I was talking about something. Oh right, the overall point is, a lot of big college sports programs are high-profile but currently unprofitable ventures. And as education cuts and layoffs at universities (including good old UMCP) continue, soon, the argument goes, they will have little choice but to consider slashing athletic budgets. The average university athletic budget is $36 million. That’s a lot. Especially when people are losing their jobs. But let me ask you one question: do you want to be the one to tell Timmy there will be no water polo team this year? That the mirrors on the weight room walls will not be re-silvered as planned, thus gravely endangering douchey flex rates? Don’t kid yourself. Those are tough conversations to have. I don’t care who you are.

So what about Maryland? According to the Sentinel’s rankings (via The Diamondback and provided by the education department), Maryland ranks 41st out of the 118 Division 1-A schools, raking in more than $54 million. Not bad, not bad. However, how does it compare to what was spent? I couldn’t find this year’s athletic budget, but back in 2006 it was $51.2 million, and I’m guessing it hasn’t gone down. For comparision’s sake, the entire UM system’s budget shortfall is $37.8 million.

I may not know the difference between a “dime” and a “nickel,” but it’s not hard to see that the big universities are in a cutthroat competition for bragging rights on championship trophies, facilities, recruits, and the rest of it, and view athletics as a key part of a school’s reputation and “brand.” But if the operation isn’t making money — and maybe even coming at the expense of education programs, people’s livelihoods, or both — then, yeah, okay, it’s probably time to revisit. No one wants to see the athletic programs lose steam, and everyone knows about The Flutie Effect (just ask George Mason), but something tells me a tipping point is inevitable. Whether it affects the product on the playing field — and how or whether it will affect different schools in different ways — is the real question. I guess only TIME….will tell….


2 Responses to “Are Maryland sports headed for leaner times?”

  1. August 3, 2009 at 11:44 am

    At this point, Maryland is well past the Flutie Effect. Colleges, including Maryland, are still seeing high application rates. With long-term Comcast and Under Armour endorsements in place, the AD is in a great position to weather the economic storm. The football stadium upgrade was ill timed, but UMD was not the only real estate developer that misjudged the market. The bigger question is whether the athletic programs make money to sustain themselves, or should they be giving a bigger share of their revenues back to the university to pay down the budget shortfall?

    The best thing that could happen to college sports is that some air is let out of the balloon without popping it. I believe the stakes have gotten too high for the good of the schools and their athletes. It’s unfortunate that the vicitms here might be the rugby and water polo programs, but that’s economics at work.

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