By William J. Broussard, PhD
USA Today recently published its annual report on 2014-2015 NCAA Division I athletic department revenues and expenses. A cursory scan of the report reveals nothing especially alarming to ardent followers of HBCU Division I athletics. All but one of the 21 HBCU Division I programs ranked in the report (Hampton University, Howard University and Bethune-Cookman University were not included in the report because they are private universities) are in the bottom 1/3 of the 231 programs listed. Flagship institutions in HBCU states like Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia report revenues and expenses many times higher than HBCU.
Alabama State (at #162) leads the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) in athletic spending, and Alabama State wins more championships than other SWAC programs each year. While Norfolk State (at #146) is listed as the highest-spending program in the Mideastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), I have reason to believe Hampton and Bethune-Cookman spend more (their tuition costs and salaries for staff alone suggest as much) and they are perennially strong programs across the board.
A favorite pastime of HBCU alumni and season ticket holders is lamenting the bygone era of HBCU athletic dominance and younger alumni and recruiters extolling HBCU virtues while wishing for a future in which the most talented black college prospects would enroll at HBCUs again; perhaps a spending comparison this stark puts such regrets and aspirations in perspective. However, the numbers do offer an encouraging look at how HBCUs compare versus their Division I institutional peers (southern Division I Football Championship Subdivision athletic programs and those in the NCAA Limited Resource Institution [LRI] category) and the data offers an opportunity to reflect on what athletic department spending at HBCUs generate — other than, of course, wins and losses.
It’s important to note what the study does and does not measure before using it as a comparison tool. Public institutions across the United States competing at the NCAA’s highest level of competition spent a collective $9.1 billion on college athletics expenses in 2014-2015, with the average department spending $39.7 million. This includes all departmental spending on salaries, travel, scholarships and equipment, as well as all other related expenses. Factors that are not considered in the report, but should be for the purposes of comparison, are regional cost of living differences, institutional differences regarding tuition, fees and scholarship costs, as well as size of the department with regard to number of employees, student-athletes, and sport sponsorships. Conference affiliation is also an important determinant of expenses, as it dictates mandatory travel expenditures and compliance with conference rules that can be more costly than others.
The average HBCU Division I athletic program spent $9.6 million, and nearly half (9 out of 21) of them are below $10 million in spending. This would appear to suggest gross underfunding when compared to peer Division I conferences, but other factors like cost of living and cost of attendance and more, help contextualize the spending disparities.
But when you compare HBCU programs to their Division I Football Championship Subdivision peers, you interesting trends in spending and revenues. The Southern and Southland Conferences, which are represented in the report by 15 public institutions in six southern states where HBCUs are located (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas), sponsor comparable numbers of sports programs and have comparable travel requirements to SWAC and MEAC schools. While the average athletic department spending in HBCU Division I programs sits just below $10 million, the Southern and Southland Conference institutions spend $13.1 million, a 26.7% difference.
Many HBCU supporters and alumni understand that the institution benefits from “money games” against Big Ten, Southeastern Conference, and Big 12 programs, but cannot figure out why HBCU struggle in inter-conference competition versus Big South, SoCon, Southland, and Ohio Valley competitors. This is why. A 26.7% increase in spending at HBCU institutions would provide full scholarship allotments, renovated and newly-constructed facilities and adequate support for academic enhancement, compliance, marketing and development efforts. Bear this in mind next time you see a new facility being built, or a billboard, or a sterling APR/Graduation Success Rate report featuring the predominately white institution (PWI) down the street from your HBCU.
But where do schools get the extra money to increase their athletics budgets, particularly when many southern states are dramatically reducing spending via subsidies to higher education? Many HBCU sports enthusiasts believe athletic departments should be more entrepreneurial and aggressive when it comes to self-generating revenues. However, the statistics show that when compared to institutional peers, HBCU hold their own in regard to revenue generation.
The total revenues category of the report includes all institutional revenues generated through ticket sales, private fundraising, corporate sales, licensing and royalties and guarantee games. When compared to institutions in the Limited Resource category (athletic programs with the bottom 15% in athletic spending), Division I HBCU programs self-generated on average $2.363 million compared to $2.340 million for all LRI programs. There is little difference between the SWAC ($2.382 million) and the MEAC ($2.305 million) and Tennessee State ($2.67 million), with Southern leading the SWAC at $3.86 million and Florida A&M leading the MEAC at $3.8 million. An area that deserves further scrutiny is the means by which these revenues are generated. While all institutions in this category receive NCAA funding through various programs (such as the Special Assistance Fund and Accelerated Academic Success Programs) HBCUs appear to overly rely on “money games” as a means of generating revenue while other LRI programs rely upon more diverse streams of income, including selling general admission and season tickets for sports outside of football, men’s and women’s basketball and baseball, corporate sales and small business sponsorships and annual fund programs.
There is additional pressure to reduce institutional support for college athletic programs. HBCUs, statistically, do not appear more heavily reliant upon institutional subsidies and student self-assessed fees for institutional support when compared to their LRI peers. The average subsidy percentage of HBCU athletic programs is 73.91% compared to 72.2% at LRI. This means, essentially, that non-HBCU institutions and students who attend those institutions are not tasked with providing financial support any more duly than their peers at other LRIs.
Still, the numbers tell a story that HBCU alumni and supporters must heed. While HBCU athletic programs are competitive against their peers in terms of revenue generation and HBCU execs are comparably responsible to their PWI peers in subsidizing college athletic programs at their institutions, the SWAC and MEAC are still at the bottom of all 30+ Division I athletic conferences in athletic spending and revenues. Consider, for example, that the Atlantic Sun Conference, a southern, non-football sponsorship league, spent on average $10.75 million for athletic expenses, and Division I-AAA (non-football) programs such as New Jersey Tech, Oakland, Missouri-Kansas City, Indiana University/Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), and Indiana/Purdue-Fort Wayne (IPFW) spend on average over $10 million.
This does not dictate that institutions should spend more, or that athletic programs should be expected to increase revenues by seven-figure amounts overnight. What it does signal is that expectations for competitive success should be re-contextualized within this conversation (and increasingly celebrated when HBCUs defeat their more significantly resourced peers), and that academic and graduation rate success be re-considered in light of available resources to students (and in comparison with the institution’s performance regarding retention and graduation success). The report is an important tool for measuring growth and status of HBCU athletic programs, and hopefully one that is digested and analyzed by athletic directors, foundation executives, executive administrators and season ticket holders, donors and booster club members alike.