UVA Athletics: Keeping up with the Joneses?

UVA AthleticsUVA Athletics is investing $180 million in a new athletics performance center, which almost isn’t newsworthy, given how many schools are making, or have recently made, similar investments.

With all the reporting on this topic, the one question that I don’t recall ever seeing asked is, why?

It’s assumed that the answer is obvious: well, you want to win, don’t you?

That’s enough to cow those from asking the question, and the follow-ups, like, to name one, no, seriously, why?

Is it really just about winning games?

And, let’s cut to the chase here. UVA is calling the new facility an athletics performance center, and technically, yes, the Olympic sports get new space, but nobody is investing $180 million in Olympic sports not named the U.S. Olympic Committee.

This is all about football, and specifically, about keeping up with the Clemsons, the Florida States, the North Carolinas.

OK, you’re thinking, reading along, what’s so wrong with wanting to keep up with the Clemsons, Florida States and UNCs?

I’ll get you twisting in the wind mad at me by answering your question with another question: what’s so right about any of this?

I can see the steam coming out of your ears.

Sorry for that.

I promise, I’m as much a football fan, and generally a UVA sports fan, as you are, maybe more.

I’m also a math person, and a logic person.

And the math and logic to the gobs of money committed to college athletics don’t add up.

UVA, for example, back in 2016-2017, the most recent sports year for which we have detailed figures for college sports budgets, brought in $92.9 million in revenues, ranking 39th nationally, among the 230 D1 schools that are public colleges and universities.

Sounds good, except that UVA reported $100.3 million in expenses.

That’s a net loss of $7.4 million, obviously, and looking back five years, the department operated at a net profit just twice, in 2015-2016 (a $3.4 million profit) and 2012-2013 (a net profit of $200,000).

I looked at three ACC peers to get a sense of their finances, and saw similar trends. Virginia Tech had three net profits in the 2012-2017 period. Florida State had four, and Clemson actually reported a net profit all five years, but the biggest individual year in terms of revenues vs. expenses was all the way back in 2012-2013, when Clemson reported a $2 million profit.

Funny thing about both Clemson and Florida State, both of which won national championships in football during this span.

Both saw massive increases in spending from 2012-2017: Clemson increasing its overall athletics budget from $69.1 million in 2012-2013 to $112.6 million in 2016-2017, an increase of 63 percent over the five-year period; and FSU increased its budget from $91.4 million in 2012-2013 to $144.5 million in 2016-2017, an increase of 58.1 percent over the period.

Both, of course, saw revenues grow as a result: Clemson’s from $67.1 million in 2012-2013 to $111.1 million in 2016-2017, growth of 65.6 percent; FSU’s from $84.8 million in 2012-2013 to $143.4 million in 2016-2017, growth of 69.1 percent.

If you just looked at that final set of numbers, the growth in revenues, you’d say, great, see, investing in football, and athletics in general, it pays off, Mr. Pointy-Head.

Except that, looking only at the money coming in is only half the story. Clemson’s athletics department reported a profit of just $1.5 million in 2016-2017, and FSU had a profit of $1.1 million that year.

The only thing you can conclude here is that what you really get from spending more on athletics is more money spent on athletics.

Before I go on, yes, I am not entirely comfortable referring to the money left over at the end of the athletics year as a profit, because, yes, college athletics, somehow, some way, is technically a non-profit venture, but, at the same time, college sports, and we all know this, and have known this for years, is a business, however the IRS treats it.

And, anyway, the myth to college athletics, and the money that we commit to it, and the pursuit of glory, is that the money, at the end of the day, helps fund educational ventures on campus.

In fact, at schools like UVA, athletics budgets are enhanced by money diverted from the educational mission, in the form of student activity fees.

At UVA, that number was consistently in the $13 million-plus range from 2011-2017.

If you’re not familiar with my annual rants on student activity fees, basically, these are monies that students pay each year along with tuition and room and board, and they’re not voluntary, or anything resembling voluntary.

At UVA, then, roughly 13 percent of the athletics budget comes from mandatory fees paid by students, many of whom work part-time jobs during the school year, two jobs in the summer, that kind of thing, and still end up saddled with crippling student debt for years, decades, after their years on Grounds.

Instead of addressing that injustice, and I can’t think of a nicer way to put that, because that’s what it is, we’re committing $180 million to a complex that we think might help us win a couple more football games each fall.

When really all we’re doing there, of course, is playing catch-up, in a competition sense, with the Clemsons, the Florida States, the LSUs.

That’s the depressing thing to all of this, to me. We’re never going to out-Clemson Clemson, out-FSU FSU, out-SEC anybody but maybe Vanderbilt.

You know as well as I do that the second we cut the ribbon on this new performance center, Clemson will start raising money on its next football shang-ri-la, and it will be 10 times bigger and 100 times better than anything we would ever want to conjure up.

And yet we do it, and we tell ourselves that we need to do it, because if we don’t, we’re falling even further behind.

News flash: we’re always going to be behind, and that has nothing to do with our facilities.

UVA, as an institution, is not going to compromise on the fact that it’s a university, first, that fields competitive athletics teams, second.

We don’t want to be Clemson, FSU, LSU – all due respect to the folks at those schools, their alums, their fans.

They have their priorities; we have ours.

And yet, here we are, spending all this money, and for what.

The lack of a question mark on that sentence is not an omission.

Story by Chris Graham



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