Get the money / Dollar, dollar bill y’all

Today at the gym I had a conversation with someone that led to a profound epiphany.

Many universities – especially state universities – are dealing with budget problems.*  With shrinking state support, many universities are looking into new ways to raise money.  But there seems to be one that no university has yet implemented, which I find baffling.

The conversation I had today included someone asking me flat out why someone should attend SUNY Potsdam for purely academic reasons.  He claimed that, because most majors exist at most universities, picking one for a specific major (except specialized majors offered at select universities) is silly.  He suggested that many students do – or at least should – pick universities based on sports, and that this should be true for fans as well as athletes.**

And while at first I thought he was pretty stupid, I later realized just how right he was.  I remembered that many of my students at UConn grew up as UConn fans, and proudly attended the university in large part for the sports culture.  And, of course, a great many athletes – especially those with dreams of playing professionally – select their schools based on the program’s popularity, chances of winning a national title, or ability to start (especially in televised, high-profile games).

Sports are a major reason why many students attend specific universities.

And I have no idea why universities choose to ignore that as a way to make money.

I’ve already proposed allowing students to major in their sport of choice, and do away with the outdated and erroneous notion of the “student athlete.”  In addition to that, we should also start charging students for that privilege.

For the time being, let’s leave aside the fan experience which, honestly, can already be pretty expensive for the students.  Let’s instead focus on the athletes.

Let’s take for granted that many students choose their university based primarily – if not entirely – based on their chance to play for a team.  And let’s also take for granted that for the most exclusive teams, there are a great many people looking to play.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that most NCAA Division I programs have no problem finding enough bodies to fill out their rosters.  (This is probably also true for Division II and III teams.)

So maybe it’s high time universities start profiting from this demand.

Right now, many universities recruit athletes with scholarships, at what turns out to be a huge cost to universities.  Sure, many universities make a great deal of money with their academic programs.  But the point here is that they could make even more.

Let’s take one university: University of Alabama.  And let’s focus on one sport: football.

The Alabama Crimson Tide football program has won 16 national titles, 30 conference titles, and 12 division titles.  It has produced 2 Heisman winners, and 8 players who have eventually been inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.  And currently, there are 42 former players now playing professionally in the NFL.

Isn’t it about time Alabama capitalized on this?

There are a great many high school football players who want to play for Alabama.  Am I the only one crazy enough to think that some of those students would happily pay for that privilege?  That many of them would gladly take on student loans for a chance to play for a team that has played in two  – and won one – of the three recent college football national championship games?

Am I alone in thinking that some students would rather pay tuition to play for Alabama than get a scholarship at many other universities?

If universities are looking for more ways to raise money, why on earth are they not considering selling what for many students is their most desirable product?

I understand the concept of a loss leader, and maybe universities have accepted that sports should be used to “stimulate sales” in other departments.  But if that’s the case, then those universities need to do a much better job of using sports to “sell” academics.

But I suspect that’s not the case.

Honestly, I think this is a great idea.  Not only do universities save all the money they have been wasting on athletic scholarships, but they get to make that amount in profit.  (In 2015, universities awarded over $3 billion in athletic scholarships.  That could turn into more than $6 billions dollars in total new revenue.)

But what about universities – like mine – that do not offer athletic scholarships?  Well, they would not be saving any money, but they would still be bringing in new tuition dollars.  We simply determine how much it costs to fund a sports program – facilities, coaches, staff, transportation, etc. – divide that number by the total number of players on the team, and that’s how much you charge students to play.

My colleague at the gym was right.  Many students attend a university because of the athletics.

It’s high time we maximize the profitability of those programs.

*Not really, but let’s for the sake of argument accept that there is a national budget crisis, and not a national spending crisis.

**When I pointed out that the most popular sports are offered at most universities, too, he bushed that off as irrelevant.  Of course.

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