The Role of Athletics

Oct. 8, 2009

The beauty of a university is that its success is reliant upon the collective efforts of each individual part. At Ohio University, athletics is an entity that has significant value, as it does at every major public university. When one reviews the top 100 best public universities or Ohio University’s official list of peer institutions, you will see a common thread of a strong commitment to intercollegiate athletics.


The reason for this commitment is that they recognize athletics is a dynamic marketing vehicle which annually produces millions of dollars in exposure. This exposure benefits many aspects of the university such as enrollment, alumni relations and fundraising, campus life and economic impact to the local area. Additionally, today’s students select a college for more than just a degree—they want a comprehensive student life experience of which athletics plays an integral role. Athletics may not be an academic unit, but its benefits positively affect the core academic mission of the university and make the institution better. Although there will always be some who may not appreciate athletics’ value, this does not mean the value does not exist.


There is a cost for the benefits any campus unit provides to the institution. Intercollegiate athletics at Ohio University, like most campus entities, is not self-supporting and needs university support to operate. This relationship is also true on campuses throughout the country. For example, 95 percent of Division I athletic programs do not operate at a profit. However, these institutions all are committed to the value that athletics provides to the university and gladly continue to support it financially since it is a worthy investment.


When it comes to the financial situation of intercollegiate athletics at Ohio University, much has been written and discussed, but little understood. There is definitely more than meets the eye. I would like to address some misconceptions.


Athletics has a current annual operational budget shortfall that must be addressed. However, this shortfall is largely outside the department’s control and is centered upon a lack of annual investment over a long period of time. It is not due to overspending--the athletic department’s budget a year ago ranked ninth lowest out of 12 Mid-American Conference (MAC) members and last among Ohio University’s list of 10 peer institutions. Ohio Athletics also ranks behind many conference members in student fee support.


The department is also successful in generating revenue for its budget. Athletics annually garners nearly $4 million and ranks competitively in the MAC, despite being in one of the smallest Division I markets in the country. Athletics is also aggressively implementing new and successful fundraising projects, like a statewide volunteer network which has increased annual giving 17 percent this year. It has also installed a series of strategic marketing programs, one of which fostered the largest event crowd in university history (24,617, Ohio-Connecticut football). 


The annual operating shortfall must be addressed to ensure future success and to avoid adversely affecting the institution’s financial flexibility. A delay in addressing this issue will only make this situation worse. Our goal is to annually present a balanced budget and progress is being made. Due to $700,000 of athletic department budget cuts, including eliminating 10 positions, and additional student fee support, the annual operating deficit has been significantly reduced. 


There has been a reaction by some to the university’s financial support for athletics. However, it is important to note that all cuts, new revenues and institutional support are focused on addressing the annual operating shortfall and not increasing athletics’ base budget. There is less money this year to support the sports programs, not more. The athletic department is attempting to get closer to paying for one of the lowest budgets in all of Division I athletics. 


Athletics has already cut sports down to the NCAA minimum and reduced line item budgets and staff well below nationally competitive standards. Efforts by the department to seek additional cuts and new revenues will continue. However, it is not realistic for athletics to remedy this situation without institutional support.


Another misconception is how athletics and academics are funded. Athletics receives its institutional support primarily from general fees (student fees). Academic units are principally funded by general fund dollars (tuition and state funding). When athletics receives student fee support, those dollars are not generally used for an academic unit, since student fee money supports auxiliaries like athletics, campus recreation, etc. Auxiliaries are not eligible for general fund dollars and must receive general fee support in order to operate and exist. Thus, institutional financial support to athletics does not take away from academic units. 


The concept of potentially taking future student fee money away from student-approved auxiliaries and directing it to academic units has several issues. First, student fee projects are directed by the interests of students, of which athletics is a stated priority. Again, student fee money is how all auxiliary units like athletics, student affairs, campus recreation and others, receive university support. Without future student fee support or alternative campus funding, all of these units could not survive and significantly contribute to the university. Moreover, not providing institutional support to athletics would further increase its budget shortfall.


There also exists a direct relationship between financial investment and expected return. In short, you get what you pay for. If a university has a low investment in athletics, it makes it difficult to be successful and, in turn, generate the revenues necessary to balance the budget. The athletic department budget must first be balanced and then seek strategies to fund sports more competitively in order to consistently win. When that occurs, the many benefits athletics provides to the university will reach unprecedented levels.  


Despite limited resources, the department remains competitive athletically and demonstrates excellence in academics and compliance. Athletics boasts a 93% graduation rate for those student-athletes that complete their eligibility, posted a 3.1 spring GPA, is a national leader in the NCAA Academic Performance Rate (APR) and recently registered graduation rates higher than the general student population. Additionally, the department is one of very few Division I institutions who have never committed a major NCAA violation.


Intercollegiate athletics, like many other valuable campus units, plays a key role in making Ohio University a successful and comprehensive institution. There is a cost to supporting an intercollegiate athletic program, but it is well worth the investment.