Basketball is enough. UConn should de-emphasize football, sharpen academic focus

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The 2014 men's and women's NCAA basketball champions from UConn visit the White House.

As Connecticut’s budget problems limit its funding for UConn (and other colleges and universities), financial and academic considerations are inevitably linked.

And as the UConn women’s basketball team advances through another NCAA tournament, sports receive attention.  Athletic, academic, and financial criteria converge on whether to settle for the American Athletic Conference (AAC) or instead contemplate alternatives that should include abandoning the university’s major football ambitions and returning to the Big East.

Men’s and women’s basketball are boons to UConn, bolstering fans and alumni with rewards for the university’s facilities, faculty, students, and reputation.  In April 2014, the New York Times featured the added visibility and a Mirror article asked if “dual UConn basketball titles” would yield “more donations.”

Indeed, 2014 was the UConn Foundation’s best year, with more than $80 million collected.  Earlier, basketball glory helped generate popular and legislative support for state bonding that launched the university into the 21st Century.

Football’s benefits are less certain.  When UConn reached a prime bowl game, the program lost money on unsold tickets.  It’s been downhill since.  According to a December 2014 Courant article, “Attendance at … home football games was the lowest ever seen at Rentschler Field.”  A December 2013 Mirror article cited the President’s Athletic Advisory Committee (PAAC) report.

According to that report, “The purpose of the PAAC is to advise the President on all matters related to athletics including … to maintain and foster a clear commitment to academic integrity and institutional control … [and] to ensure a priority to the commitment to student-athletes’ welfare.”

‘Academic integrity and … student-athletes’ welfare’

A Nov. 2011 McKinsey report revealed “UConn spends $58 million per year on athletics including over $6 million in direct university support … towards Title IX compliance, scholarships and other expenses. This level of institutional support is about average when compared to other peer universities.”

McKinsey consultants continued, “To reduce direct institutional support, we recommend focusing on improving revenues … primarily through increasing ticket receipts…. The department should also closely examine the costs associated with existing programs. For instance, UConn’s $10 million expenditure in scholarships, $12.5 million on coaching salaries and $6.4 million in team travel are the most among public Big East programs…. Given the needs and priorities of the University, the administration should examine these costs and associated benefits in greater detail.”

Of course, UConn is no longer in the Big East, and the PAAC’s reference to “student-athletes’ welfare” is significant.  Husky athletes travel to Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida and other states where AAC schools are located, eliciting concern about classes missed and sleep lost.

Whether UConn fields a major football team or competes at a lower level, there is a matter beyond costs and compromising of the academic mission: player safety.  As concussions and other injuries are better understood, the sport’s hazards may threaten its viability.  Should a university with a medical school and bioscience emphasis deepen its investment in a game that may harm players more than it helps them?

A cautionary example from the ACC

Most UConn fans would be pleased if the university were to join the Big Ten or Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), which has enjoyed NCAA basketball success this year and includes Duke and the University of North Carolina (UNC).  But an invitation doesn’t appear imminent.  Further, as UConn approaches the same league as UNC academically – if not also athletically (ACC membership would require big-time football) – its example should be cautionary.

Many in the North Carolina academic community regret the power of athletics.  UNC alum S.L. Price wrote of how the “Carolina Way” was reportedly corrupted by athletic excesses.  Fake classes imply a perversion of academic purpose.  Athletic success is meant to boost morale and ultimately the university’s resources and strength.   But what if this is backwards, and the costs of football in particular exceed any reasonable benefits?

Only a small number of schools – outside the northeast, unless you count BC and Rutgers – can boast both superior football teams and academic reputations.

Because of revenue-sharing within the “Power Five” conferences, mediocrity in such a conference possibly is sufficient financially to justify pursuing serious football.  Richard Sandomir’s New York Times article suggests football teams in “power” conferences find even obscure bowl games lucrative in luring millions of TV viewers, more than most NCAA basketball tournament teams can attract.

Yet the analysis may differ for a second-rate team in a second-rate conference.  I don’t claim knowledge of all the financial virtues of football.  Surely even losing seasons, in unfilled stadiums in a less-than-stellar conference, bring some financial gains through TV.   But how do these gains compare with the costs of dozens of athletic scholarships, a substantial football staff and facilities, and the apparent penalty imposed upon the basketball program by playing in the AAC?

March saw the AAC earn two bids to the NCAA men’s tournament while the basketball-centric Big East secured six. A March Bloomberg article indicated the Big East’s six participating teams will bring it many more “units” and dollars (divided among 10 schools) than the AAC’s two NCAA tournament schools and single win, divided among 11 schools.

As the prospect of an invitation to a “power” conference seems remote (UConn, correct me if I’m wrong!), the university should assess the costs of its big-time football aspirations.  To what extent do the benefits exceed those costs?

The economy of football

Economists would characterize much of UConn’s football program as a “sunk cost”; just because tens of millions of dollars have been devoted to it is not reason to continue.  Another economic question: What is the “opportunity cost” of investing yet more resources in football – what is the university forgoing?

“Next Gen CT” – UConn’s 10-year, $1.5 billion expansion plan – doesn’t depend on big-time football.  The former should proceed regardless of the latter. Curbing football ambitions might actually heighten academic quality.

Unless it’s likely that academic and financial benefits will accrue from a major football program, UConn should consider reversing course.  One option, leaving the AAC and rejoining the Big East, would involve trade-offs, from a possible short-term financial penalty to some disgruntled alumni and students – but might make sense.

UConn football’s 2015 home opener will be against Villanova.  Villanova and Georgetown retain strong basketball teams and were among the six Big East schools in the 2015 NCAA men’s tournament.

Georgetown football is in the Patriot League; academically, Georgetown is tied for 21 in the U.S. News list of national universities, just ahead of UCLA and UVA (UNC ranks 30).  Whatever the limitations of such rankings, UConn – slightly trailing such schools as Texas – is tied for 58 with Fordham, SMU, and Syracuse (ahead of Georgia, Maryland, Pittsburgh, and Rutgers.)

There is scarce correlation between football and academic accomplishment; insofar as the U.S. News rankings are useful, UConn is academically ahead of some better football schools, while trailing academic institutions that give little heed to football.  A better football team will not help UConn surpass Texas, UCLA, or Michigan (29), which will prevail on the gridiron.  Academics should remain UConn’s priority.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), in late 2014 announcing its intention to end its football program, cited “costs … spiraling upwards driven by cost-of-attendance payments to players, meals, equipment, facilities, coaches, travel and more.”  The decision is controversial and perhaps only provisional.  UAB’s president said, “The financial picture made our decision very clear…. To invest at least another $49 million to keep football over the next five years, we would have to redirect funds away from other critical areas of importance like education, research, patient care or student services.”

I’m not suggesting UConn end football altogether, though that might merit consideration, especially as the sport’s health implications become clearer.

My case blends principle and pragmatism.  If a “power” athletic conference invitation isn’t imminent, rather than anticipate an extended tenure in the AAC, UConn should consider downgrading its football ambitions while exploring a return of basketball to the Big East and Madison Square Garden.  Such a move would balance athletic, academic, and fiscal values.

I am not a UConn graduate, so arguably my views should be discounted.  Still, my ties to the university go back decades to when I was a preschooler in the UConn Child Lab.  I have been a Husky basketball fan since the 1970s, participated in Dom Perno’s camp in the ‘80s, and have attended numerous games.

Moreover, I am a Connecticut taxpayer with a belief in UConn’s role as the state’s flagship university – and in its potential to be even stronger as an academic and economic pillar.

Josiah H. Brown lives in New Haven, where he works in education and volunteers with www.LiteracyEveryday.org and as a youth basketball coach. His children are members of UConn’s Junior Husky Club.

What do you think?

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