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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Dr. D - Breaking the Cornhusker Bank

So, this is my first attempt at hacking out my inane thoughts for Double Extra Point, blogger nation. I must say that I think Jeffie Husker's blog is among the best I've ever encountered, especially given the fact that it's just a few weeks old--and I would say all that even if the guy hadn't been a close friend for the past 15 years. About me, Dr. D. I'm a Husker expat, living in Bloomington, Indiana, right near the action of a major college campus, although not as close as I would like most nights. My first piece comments on the current financial state of college athletics. Enjoy!

A recent Lincoln Journal Star article commented on the 10 year history of the Big 12 conference, with a special emphasis on the effects that the new alliance has had on Big Red. The article's thesis was essentially that the conference has weakened Nebraska's athletic prowess and reputation. Instead of collecting armloads of conference trophies each year, taking our picks of the litter with top prep stars and reaping other benefits accorded the conference's top athletic power, we have been reduced to scrapping with the likes of new Big 12 conference foes Texas Tech and Texas A&M and Big 8 also-rans Kansas St, Colorado and Iowa St in vying for coveted berths in the Independence Bowl (let's not even mention what's become of the basketball program-men or women's). The pre-eminent power in the new Big 12 is obviously Texas. In the new college athletics pecking order, Nebraska is now considerably behind the big boys of college athletics. Husker loyalists hear me out - I am one of you. It pains me to type these words as much as it pains you to consider the possibility that they may be true. So, before you call for my head or dismiss my blasphemous claims as baseless, I encourage you to consider the following.

Big time sports are big business. For most Nebraska fans, their first clue that the structure of college athletics was moving unavoidably toward being primarily business-centric coincided with Bill Byrne's arrival from Oregon in the early 90s. Soon after arriving in Lincoln, Byrne began charging season ticket holders annual fees to retain their seats, aggressively pursuing apparel licensing deals and corporate sponsorships, and began removing wasteful inefficiencies from within the athletic department. It was clear to most longtime NU boosters and alums, the new mantra of athletic department operations was "Show me the money." During Byrne’s 11 year reign at Nebraska, athletic department spending tripled. As tempting as it is to conclude, Bill Byrne is not to blame for the athletic program's new money-first directive. Byrne's arrival at Nebraska represented a necessary action to pull a proud and successful athletics program into the 21st century of business management. Schools all around the country were realizing the potential cash inflows possible with big-time college sports. This realization represented the new age modus operandi for athletic administrators: bring in as much cash as you can and spend as much of it as possible to build bigger, better, more recruit-alluring facilities to attract even more money. In the mold of Steinbrenner, the successful new age A.D. should be a cash sink, bringing as much money in while spending as much as humanly possible to justify the need to siphon in even more dollars. The college athletics arm race was born.

Sadly for NU, the deck is stacked firmly against us in this brave new world. Consider that Texas brought in almost $35 million more in revenue for 2004, the last year in which comparative data are available. What can you get for $35 million? To put it in context, our new multi-year fundraising project for stadium and locker room improvements had an ambitious $50 million benchmark. Even better, my current employer Indiana University drew a mere $38 million in athletic department revenue in 2004. A $35 million revenue gap is significant in a world where top coaches draw millions and 10 year old facilities are considered obsolete. In a world where success (and the millions that come with it) hinges on freshman kickers making 40-yarders into a stiff wind, every dollar counts. For instance, Nebraska’s ability to boast about the new Huskervision screen being the largest of its kind was short-lived, as Texas immediately announced it was building a bigger one — funded undoubtedly with some of that extra petty cash.

My point is not to claim that Nebraska cannot contend on the field with the big spending boys (e.g., Texas, Ohio St., Florida, Michigan, etc). However, when our current football spending ranks us #24 in the NCAA, the on the field struggles of recent years such as being , ranked the 28th best program over the past 3 years are suddenly less surprising. This pattern of results seems to follow the age old business adage that you generally get what you pay for. If we use the data available from the Indianapolis Star’s NCAA Financial Reports Database we can examine the issue of athletic spending more closely. I doubt most Husker fans would be too surprised to learn that schools like Ohio St., Auburn and Florida outspend the Big Red in football operating costs. However, I believe it is a bit eye-opening for most Husker fans to see us outspent by the likes of Virginia, Georgia Tech and Arkansas. At the very least, Husker nation may have to realize that on a year-to-year level; we may be slipping behind the big boys to the extent that on the field success is tied to spending.

My real point in drawing attention to all this is to go beyond merely stating the obvious reality that college sports generates a lot of money, and that this money is not distributed evenly among all competing schools. What bothers me about all of this is that the NCAA, the governing body that regulates every aspect of college athletics has not instituted more control when it comes to curbing the spending war. MLB, the NFL and the NBA all have luxury taxes that penalize organizations that spend excessively to try and level the playing field. Why shouldn't the NCAA look seriously at the fairness of allowing schools to spend $35 million more than others when their stated goal is to ensure the integrity and fairness of intercollegiate athletics?