The U.S. Model for College Sports Is Unsustainable
The dissolution of the Pac-12 is a reminder that Olympic sports like running need to find a new business model. And that’s not such a bad thing.
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My college running career was brief and undistinguished––cut short by injury and too many pints of ale. I also went to university in Scotland where, like most British schools, sports follow a club model where teams are run by students. We trained hard and fared well at the British university championships, but the overall vibe was decidedly recreational. Weekly pub nights were just as crucial to team culture as hill repeats: Not exactly Running With the Buffaloes. Maybe it was because I was delusional about my latent ability, but every now and then I’d feel wistful about competing for a program on the other side of the Atlantic. The NCAA, with its stratospheric budget, stupid mascots, and sold-out stadiums, seemed to offer student athletes a quasi-professional experience. This was where you went if you really wanted to maximize your athletic potential, as evidenced by the endless number of Olympians who were NCAA alumni. Then again, there was something reassuringly sane about university sports in the UK, where being on a team was just one component, rather than the dominating feature, of college life.
The difference between these respective systems came to mind last week, in the wake of news that the Pac-12, the NCAA’s powerhouse conference in the west, would be further diminished when the University of Oregon and the University of Washington join the Midwest-centric Big 10 next year. These were only the latest Pac-12 defectors; UCLA, USC, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and the University of Colorado had already announced that they would be leaving next year as well. The reason for this mass exodus is, of course, the billion dollar industry of college football and the Pac-12’s inability to secure a sufficiently lucrative TV deal. Football, which makes most of its money from media rights and ticket sales, is by far the most profitable college sport (with basketball coming in a distant second) and the one whose annual margins help fund other NCAA sports that don’t make money—which is most of them. The fates of thousands of amateur athletes in “non-revenue” sports will be dramatically affected by the college sport that operates most like a professional sports business. (With the trifling caveat that the athletes aren’t being paid.) While universities always claim that the wellbeing of student athletes is their highest priority, the prospect of, say, a volleyball player being required to fly cross-country for mid-week games, seems to put that notion in doubt. There has even been criticism from within the football fold. Most notably, Eli Drinkwitz, the head coach at Missouri, delivered an impassioned critique in a press conference: “We’re talking about a football decision based on football, but what about softball and baseball who have to travel across the country? Do we ask about the cost to them?”
What about the cost for college runners? The soon-to-be defunct Pac-12 is by far the strongest conference in the country for running and other “Olympic sports” like swimming and water polo. When I asked Steve Magness, a writer and performance coach who was formerly the head coach of cross-country at the University of Houston, he pointed out that, at least from a logistical standpoint, track and cross-country are somewhat insulated from the conference realignment fallout. In running, qualification for NCAA championships is regionally based and teams generally have only one big conference-related trip per season—the conference championships. But Magness is also wary of the broader implications of this latest college sports shakeup: “What role do sports like track and cross-country play in a world where TV dollars are essentially the only thing that matters? If college sports become professional sports (in football and basketball), what’s the point of sports like track, XC, soccer, golf?” Magness wrote in an email.
In a more innocent era, Magness added, college sports were not meant to be big business, so much as another facet of campus life where variety of experience was valued as an end in itself. “Just imagine if we did the same thing in academic programs,” Magness says, referring to the idea of basing a subject’s value purely on its financial viability. “Do we say all hail to the engineering or business programs because they bring in the most revenue? Of course not. They may have more resources, but schools still keep around and find value in music, English, history, and so many other departments that might not bring in as much revenue.”
At first glance, this analogy doesn’t seem that reassuring when it comes to the future of college running programs. It’s hardly a secret that humanities departments across the land are fighting for survival. But the comparison to academia is potentially instructive for non-revenue sports like running. One of the dominant criticisms of English departments at universities is that they haven’t been proactive enough about making the case for their own relevance—that they have, to some extent, taken it for granted that their institutions will always see their inherent value.
When I spoke to Victoria Jackson, a sports historian at Arizona State and former Pac-10 champion at 5,000-meters, she suggested that Olympic sports at universities are also guilty of a kind of complacency. Despite the fact that their dependence on football money has become increasingly unsustainable, these sports haven’t done enough to figure out alternative modes of funding. Jackson told me that the extravagance of football spending has influenced other sports as well: for example, between 2013 and 2019, salaries of head coaches in Olympic sports increased by 43 percent. Such inflation means that sports that are not core to a university’s business model will be the first to be cut when budgets need to be trimmed. Case in point; the raft of college running programs that were suddenly on the chopping block after the Covid summer of 2020.
“What I have been trying to gently remind track and field folks about is that I don’t know if we’re deserving of this sense of entitlement,” Jackson told me, referring to college running’s reliance on football contracts. “I don’t know if we’re entitled to that level of financing over the past couple of decades—because we haven’t worked to build it. The lesson of summer of 2020 was that we need to be working as hard as we can to come up with alternative forms of subsidization. It is not football’s fault that track and field is dependent on football money.”
Sooner or later, the football bonanza for Olympic sports will be over, especially if the players win the right to be financially compensated for their efforts on the field. Jackson, who is a big proponent of paying college football players and ending the current charade of faux-amateurism, believes that untethering football from other college sports is ultimately in everyone’s best interest: It will make it more difficult for administrators to use the dated ideals associated with the “student athlete” as a way to justify not paying the football players what they are worth, while giving the Olympic sports a chance to reinvent themselves.
“There is an opportunity in this crisis for the other sports to reclaim governance and organization leadership in their sport,” Jackson says. Easier said than done. But for her part, Jackson has already proposed some radical ideas of how this might be achieved, including a federal tax on sports betting with the money going towards Olympics sports at universities. When we spoke, she also suggested a two-tiered model, which divides Olympic sports at universities into an “elite” Olympic development category similar to what already exists at top NCAA programs, and a “community-based” tier, where participation in university sports (and use of university facilities) is less exclusive and open to more members of the local community.
The latter idea could potentially resemble the club scene that I knew in my college years. Membership at my university’s running team was technically accessible to anyone—even non-students—as long as they paid dues to the university’s sports union. While such a system might strike an American reader as contrary to the whole point of college sports, I don’t think the club model is really so irreconcilable with what we’re used to over here. For instance, we still had university championships where only students could take part. But workouts, and races with other local clubs, were available to all members. At least in terms of discovering and developing talent in Olympic sports, a more inclusive approach to college sports teams doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea. Why limit a prospective talent pool only to those who can clear the hurdles, economic and otherwise, of attending a fancy school? Meanwhile, for those enrolled at these vaunted institutions of higher education, reinventing what it means to be a student athlete might actually give them more time to imagine what their futures might look like outside of sports. That, after all, was supposed to be the point of going to college in the first place.