Football and Basketball Matter, the Others Are Expendable
by John Furgele (The Real 228)
On Monday, the University at Buffalo dropped four intercollegiate sports. Getting the axe were men’s soccer, baseball, men’s swimming and diving and women’s rowing. In the end, it is about football and basketball at the collegiate level. These are the sports that people care about. Those are the sports that make kids want to apply to schools. They drive the bus. Swimming, soccer, baseball, track, cross country, golf, tennis and the rest are ways to attract students, and get more students to pay to go to school. These sports rarely offer full athletic scholarships, so it requires students to fork over varying degrees of money to pay for their educations. Students and the community do not flock to these events either, so none of them will ever make money for a university or college. Yet, these sports are often subsidized by the students and in many situations, funds from a general pool. All of the students help fund the teams, yet very few of them go to the games.
In some ways, it is like cable TV. Your grandma watches the Hallmark Channel every day. She pays $120 per month to Spectrum, not knowing that $7.25 of that goes to ESPN, a channel she can’t even find. And, today, we are seeing millions of people cutting the cord to cable and we are seeing ESPN struggle with the drop in revenues. At Buffalo, the school relies on a high percentage of student subsidies to fund athletics. Eventually, the students might start complaining.
Colleges are supposed to educate and train people for careers. They are supposed to use monies for that purpose. But, colleges believe that they have to do more than just educate; they have to entertain, and sports is a big part of that in their opinion. In Europe this doesn’t happen. There are sports clubs that take care of that, leaving colleges to do what they are supposed to. I have never read about the soccer team at The Sorbonne. Universities want to create a culture and a diversion so students will graduate and serve as a lifelong marketer. Sports can help. North Carolina alums are still giddy over seeing their alma mater capture the NCAA basketball championship.
It’s a fundamental and problematic issue. Schools want to have sports, and in particular, football and baseball because they want in on the money pie that they think is there. It is there, of course, but only for the precious few; the Michigans, Alabamas, Ohio States and LSUs of the world. Most schools, like Buffalo, San Jose State, Kent State, and Marshall never see a profit. They run athletics at a deficit and hope that they can make it up in other areas. When it gets too bad, they do what Buffalo did—they cut some sports to show that they are trying to balance the balance sheet. If that doesn’t work, they cut an academic program, which further infuriates. And, they have to try; they can’t just keep spending without any sort of belt tightening. But, football (and basketball) are the only sports at colleges where season tickets are sold, where luxury seating is sold and donations are sought for. The Orange Club at Syracuse does not exist because people in Central New York are itching to go to men’s soccer or women’s volleyball games. It exists because football and basketball can draw crowds of 50 and 30 thousand. Supply and Demand.
SUNY schools have never been known for passionate student support. Buffalo is not Duke. Binghamton is not Gonzaga and Albany is not Villanova. The truth is that Buffalo could be the class of MAC football and never sell out UB Stadium. The WNY community sees it the same way. They know Buffalo is a great university, but they would rather watch the Sabres and Bills on TV. They are a major league town. When the NCAA basketball tournament comes to town, it sells out, but when Baylor plays UB, good seats remain available. Can that be changed and if so, it is more than a monumental task to change it. Monumental. And, it’s not just at Buffalo. There are hundreds of universities grappling with the same thing. They want to offer the sports, they want to be competitive, but they can’t make a profit and worse, they have to dip into other funding to support athletics.
Football will go through a major reorganization in the very near future. The money has become the wedge. There will come a time where the Power 5 schools will separate themselves from the Group 5 schools. The Group 5 schools will then merge with the FCS schools and they will create a 32-team playoff to go along with the 8-team playoff at the Power 5 level. The Power 5 level will call itself CFA Football and the G5/FCS level will call itself NCAA Football. The networks will love this because there will be plenty of inventory to go round and no longer will people get confused about the levels that make up college football. It is very hard to explain to a person that there are three levels of Division I football—Power 5, Group 5, and FCS. Two levels would be much easier. People understand the term mid-major, but very few casual fans understand P5, G5 and FCS. Trust me, I have tried to explain it and it is very difficult to do. Buffalo could win the NCAA Championship while Ohio State could clam the CFA title. There has already been talk within G5 schools of having a separate playoff, and even though it was dismissed—for now—where there is smoke, there is fire.
The problem will come with college basketball. The NCAA football schools might not want the CFA football schools to play in the Big Dance, but the discrepancy dollar-wise in football is so great that the divide has to be made official. For basketball, there can be peace and the 68-team tournament should continue as is. Furthermore, the networks will demand as such. This is a golden goose worth preserving. The NCAA schools will be mad, but they have too much to lose by separating in basketball.
NCAA schools would play CFA schools in football, but come playoff time, the Buffalo loss to Alabama won’t hurt them when the NCAA picks the teams for the 32-team playoff.
Change is hard, but something has to happen because the divide is not only wide, it is canyon like.