Mike Fish has written a fascinating piece for ESPN.com that explores the money rolling in to big time college football programs, mainly through the lens of the SEC. We’ve all heard or surmised some of the stuff, but it’s the way he rolls in factoid after factoid about the dollars that becomes almost riveting. Consider these points:
- SEC faithful filled campus stadiums to 98 percent of capacity this fall, the 12th consecutive season the conference topped the country in football attendance. This season, for the first time ever, every game — conference and nonconference alike — involving an SEC team was televised. SEC teams even drew a total of 450,000 fans to their spring games in 2009 — a remarkable average of better than 37,000. That’s more than up-and-comers Boise State and Cincinnati attracted per regular-season game in 2008.
- For a coach, the SEC can hardly be called a steppingstone to the NFL, as many college jobs are. In fact, five of the SEC’s 12 current head coaches came to the conference from head-coaching jobs in the NFL…
- The rewards, though, are definitely worth the risk, especially when the average salary for an SEC coach pushes $3 million a season. And there’s almost always a buyout clause to lessen the pain if things go wrong. Mark Richt (Georgia), Gene Chizik (Auburn), Petrino (Arkansas) and Spurrier (South Carolina) each would cash close to a $2 million check if they were fired tomorrow. Les Miles, according to a 2008 contract tweak, is due $18.75 million if LSU decides to part company with him.
- Tennessee was so hot to rid itself of Phillip Fulmer after a 5-7 record in 2008 that it paid a $6 million buyout. This came a year after a 10-win season for which Fulmer had received a contract extension. Then, UT hustled to sign a deal with his successor, guaranteeing Kiffin $14.25 million through the 2014 season. Kiffin will be due $7.5 million if he is fired without cause.
- According to federal documents filed last year, the Florida association reported almost $105 million in total revenue. That’s more than the Big East Conference’s reported revenue; more even than the combined total of Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference and the Western Athletic Conference. It paid $24 million in salaries compared with $17.3 million to cover scholarships for 440 University of Florida athletes.
- In fact, two non-SEC powers — Texas ($87.6 million) and Ohio State ($68.2 million) — generated the most football revenue last season, according to survey data that schools are required to file with the federal government. But the SEC is home to six of the top 10 moneymakers in the college game: Florida ($66.2 million), Georgia ($65.2 million), Alabama ($64.6 million), LSU ($61.9 million), Auburn ($58.6 million) and South Carolina ($57.1 million).
Whew. And there’s plenty more besides that.
Fish compares the SEC to the New York Yankees. It’s a valid comparison, one I’ve made as well:
… On the other hand, spending wads of cash to hire assistants makes perfect sense from the head coach’s standpoint. It’s the southern-fried football version of George Steinbrenner’s method of running a sports operation. Relatively speaking, you’ve got more money than you know what to do with. Unlike George, you can’t spend the moolah on the players, so you spend it on the next closest thing.
It’s totally logical. When you’ve got a hard salary cap (and the 85-player limit on scholarships is about as hard as you can get) and tons of money rolling in, there are only a few places where you can spend in hopes of winning – coaching salaries and facility upgrades are the most obvious. Just ask Jimmy Sexton.
“I’m the dumbest person in the world for making this statement, because when I go to the Big Ten or ACC to do business, they’re going to remind me of this,” says Memphis-based agent Jimmy Sexton, who represents four current SEC coaches. “But the SEC just has a lot more money available. They have larger stadiums. They have more advanced giving programs from their alumni base for tickets. They obviously have a better television package [new 15-year deals totaling more than $3 billion with ESPN and CBS]. The job that [SEC commissioner] Mike Slive and those guys have done is extraordinary if you think about it. We’re in the greatest downturn in our economy since the Great Depression, and they’re setting records.
“Now, not every school that is paying their coach a lot of money is in the SEC. I mean, you got Southern Cal, Iowa, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas. There are plenty of examples of schools that pay SEC-type money, but [the SEC] is clearly where the money is.”
And of course no article like this would be complete without a denial of reality from the land of academia.
“Well, it is a very sad commentary on where we have gotten to with these salaries,” says Knight Commission co-chairman William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system. “And it raises very legitimate questions about the value system we’re operating under. … I think we need to find what I would call a more rational and responsible fiscal model. I do feel that the present economic circumstances and the almost certainty of a very slow recovery, especially in higher education in terms of resources, sets the stage for the beginning of some meaningful reforms in the financing of intercollegiate athletics.”
Translation: it’s time for the haves to start forking over some serious bucks to the have-nots. Never mind what that bad old market place has to say about things, those presidents and chancellors have some real value! (Fish rather deliciously points out that a recent Chronicle of Higher Education report revealed that a record 23 college presidents are being paid in excess of $1 million.)
And that goes for the schools trying to keep up with the Joneses of the college athletic world, too.
“After you get to No. 25, they are all losing money, but none of them want to feel like they are not going to be competitive,” Kirwan says. “So they are trying to hire coaches in competition with the big schools and provide the facilities that will make recruiting competitive for them. It is just a vicious cycle.”
If these guys could repeal the laws of supply and demand, they’d do it in a heartbeat. That’s what Congress is for.
My favorite quote comes from the head of a search firm, who tries to sum up the issue here by asking a rhetorical question that both sides already have their answers to.
“I don’t set the market [for salaries],” says Carr, a former Florida All-American and NFL player. “I’m just saying that in an academic enterprise, I think the salaries are disproportional to the value that is added. Now it may not be disproportional to the revenue generated, OK. But that is not the question. The question is, is it justifiable to pay somebody multiples of millions of dollars to coach a sport?” [Emphasis added.]
That’s basically incoherent when you think about it. What the academics and the schools that aren’t generating top dollars are really asking is “can you come up with a structure that helps us stop doing what we can’t stop doing on our own?” And the rhetorical question that Carr should be asking is “why should we?”