Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football

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9780670016730: Billion-Dollar Ball: A Journey Through the Big-Money Culture of College Football

· A Boston Globe Best Book of 2015 ·

“A penetrating examination of how the elite college football programs have become ‘giant entertainment businesses that happened to do a little education on the side.’”Mark Kram, The New York Times

Two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Gilbert M. Gaul offers a riveting and sometimes shocking look inside the money culture of college football and how it has come to dominate a surprising number of colleges and universities. 


Over the past decade college football has not only doubled in size, but its elite programs have become a $2.5-billion-a-year entertainment business, with lavishly paid coaches, lucrative television deals, and corporate sponsors eager to slap their logos on everything from scoreboards to footballs and uniforms. Profit margins among the top football schools range from 60% to 75%—results that dwarf those of such high-profile companies as Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft—yet thanks to the support of their football-mad representatives in Congress, teams aren’t required to pay taxes. In most cases, those windfalls are not passed on to the universities themselves, but flow directly back into their athletic departments.

College presidents have been unwilling or powerless to stop a system that has spawned a wildly profligate infrastructure of coaches, trainers, marketing gurus, and a growing cadre of bureaucrats whose sole purpose is to ensure that players remain academically eligible to play. From the University of Oregon’s lavish $42 million academic center for athletes to Alabama coach Nick Saban’s $7 million paycheck—ten times what the school pays its president, and 70 times what a full-time professor there earns—Gaul examines in depth the extraordinary financial model that supports college football and the effect it has had not only on other athletic programs but on academic ones as well.

What are the consequences when college football coaches are the highest paid public employees in over half the states in an economically troubled country, or when football players at some schools receive ten times the amount of scholarship awards that academically gifted students do? Billion-Dollar Ball considers these and many other issues in a compelling account of how an astonishingly wealthy sports franchise has begun to reframe campus values and distort the fundamental academic mission of our universities.

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About the Author:

Gilbert M. Gaul twice won the Pulitzer Prize and has been shortlisted for the Pulitzer four other times. For more than thirty-five years, he worked as an investigative journalist for The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers. He has reported on non-profit organizations, the business of college sports, homeland security, the black market for prescription drugs and problems in the Medicare program. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and a Ferris Fellow at Princeton University. The author of three previous books of investigative reporting, Gaul lives in New Jersey.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

 

A REAL UNIVERSITY

THE IDEA FOR THIS BOOK originally came to me more than a decade ago when I was thinking about college sports. I had become interested in what I thought was a simple but troubling question: Why were some of America’s largest and most prestigious universities spending ten times more on football players than on their smartest, most ambitious students? I wasn’t entirely naive. I knew football dominated the cultures at many of these schools. Still, I was taken aback by the size of the disparities. Penn State, for example, gave $2,250 scholarships to the students in its Honors College, a kind of university within the university for students with SATs above 1400 and perfect 4.0 grade point averages. By comparison, a football player on a full scholarship received $25,000 in aid. And that didn’t include the cost of tutors, counselors, writing and reading specialists, and an array of other academic advisers required to keep players eligible.

At the time, Penn State was being touted by the media as a model for balancing education and big-time football. Unsurprisingly, school officials embraced this narrative. Penn State even had a slogan, courtesy of its iconic coach, Joe Paterno. It referred to its approach as “The Grand Experiment,” as though the idea of balancing studying and playing football were so challenging—or possibly heroic—that it deserved its own motto.

I wondered what I was missing. At $42 million, Penn State’s budget for athletics was ten times larger than its budget for the Honors College (a gap, incidentally, that has only widened in the last decade—a football scholarship now costs about $50,000, an Honors College scholarship, $4,500). So I called the professor in charge of the Honors College and asked her if I was misreading the budgets.

No, she told me, I had it right. The university could afford only so much.

It was at this point, I think, that I sputtered: “But what about football?” or words to that effect.

“Football pays for itself,” she said. “They get to spend as much as they want.”

“You mean football isn’t part of the regular budget?”

I could almost hear her laughing, only I wasn’t imagining it. She was laughing at me.

“I’m sorry,” she said after a moment. “Football operates according to its own rules, and the rest of us just go along for the ride.”

A few days later I briefly met with Graham Spanier, the president of Penn State, and then shared a longer telephone conversation. Spanier enjoyed a reputation as a savvy guy who rarely passed up a photo op or a chance to boost his school. He was trim, handsome, and engaging. Certainly he was persuasive in explaining to me how much Penn State valued the students in its honors program. Among other advantages, the students had access to the university’s best professors and smaller classes, he said. Some of them even qualified for additional aid: A physics major, for instance, might get aid from the physics department.

I asked Spanier if he knew how many honors students got additional aid. It seemed like something he might want to know.

“Penn State has a lot of majors,” he replied.

“How about football?” I asked. “How many scholarships does football get?”

Spanier seemed disappointed by my question. “They get eighty-five,” he said. “But none of that money comes from the university.”

He said this as though it were a good thing—as though all football teams should operate like stand-alone businesses.

Spanier suggested that I call several academic departments to see if they had information on scholarships they awarded to honors students. So I contacted the English department and asked if it had a secret stash of money to help its brightest students. “That would be nice,” a professor told me. “We have a lot of good kids who could use the help.” The woman who answered the phone at the physics department must have thought she was getting a crank call. She kept asking me which research lab I was with, and when I explained that I was a writer, she abruptly hung up.

• • •

All of this occurred in the spring of 2000, nearly a dozen years before the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal derailed Graham Spanier’s career and tarnished the reputation of Penn State. In the intervening decade, college football vaulted ahead in both popularity and wealth and came to occupy a transcendent place in American sports. It was, in nearly every respect, the key component of a vast money culture that dominated college campuses. There were billion-dollar television deals and games on ESPN virtually every night of the week. Billions more flooded in from ticket sales and luxury suites and premium seating in massive Erector-set stadiums. These arenas were draped in corporate logos, and even the players’ uniforms were adorned with advertising. At the University of Oregon, Nike consultants decided which color uniforms—there were scores of possible color combinations, all bearing the company’s ubiquitous swoosh—the players wore on a given Saturday. Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, an Oregon alumnus, had single-handedly reinvented Oregon football, spending more than $100 million of his own money on lavish training facilities and stadium renovations. It was no wonder some of the students now referred to their school as the University of Nike.

The corporatization of college football was on one level unsurprising. It could even be viewed as inevitable. After all, hadn’t universities themselves become giant entertainment businesses that happened to do a little education on the side? Certainly the athletic departments of the largest and richest football schools operated like entertainment divisions, with CEO-style executives and celebrity coaches collecting Wall Street–level salaries. The athletic directors had even invented a new financial model built around monetizing every last detail of their football programs. It was so successful that schools like Texas, Michigan, and Auburn now had profit margins that put the oil companies to shame.

When I asked DeLoss Dodds, the longtime athletic director at Texas, how it was that his football program had made $80 million in profit in 2012, he grinned at me as if to say, Silly boy. Dodds once boasted that Texas didn’t need to keep up with the Joneses because it was the Joneses, implying, among other things, that the normal rules didn’t apply. Now he looked at me through dark, pebbly eyes and said: “Football is the train that drives everything and pays for everything. It just is. Everything begins and ends with football.”

So there it was: a perfect summary of the new economics of college sports.

Of course, the new financial model was not without irony or problems. The same college presidents who encouraged their athletic directors to turn their departments into businesses now lamented that spending on football was spiraling out of control and smothering the culture and mission of their schools. The hand-wringing was, in a way, even humorous in its predictability. Every few years the presidents would gather to “study the problem” and then issue a report that immediately went up on a shelf with all of the other reports while they hustled off to their luxury suites to watch the game with wealthy donors. “We are our own worst enemies,” the president of one football factory told me. “We’re all afraid to go first.”

Less visibly, the new financial model had inspired a radical shift in the economics of football, with the largest and richest programs pocketing about $2.5 billion from television broadcasts, luxury suite rentals, seat donations, and corporate advertising while all the others scrapped over what few leftovers remained. In effect, the game had devolved into a zero-sum experience, with clear financial winners and then everyone else, mirroring what seemed to be occurring in the larger economy.

The flood of cash—nearly all of it tax free, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of senators and congressmen from football-mad states—had also fundamentally altered the core mission of these schools. Instead of touting their educational offerings, they now promoted their football programs because football, after all, was exciting and attracted media attention. When I tried to ask college presidents about this, many of them ran for cover. The few who did open up were embarrassed. The message was backward, and they knew it. But the world had changed, they insisted, and they ignored the changes at their own peril.

And so, the presidents told anyone willing to listen, it was okay if the first thing people thought of when they thought about their schools was their football team. Football was the new brand, a way to lure both students and alumni to campus. Some of the presidents even took to calling football the “front porch” of their universities, while others rhapsodized about its healing powers and uncommon ability to unite the campus. Others contended that a winning football team attracted more and smarter students. After it won a couple of national championships, the University of Alabama began promoting this narrative, with several major publications repeating it nearly verbatim. I didn’t doubt football and championships could boost a university’s Q score—albeit temporarily. But what I wondered was how presidents could differentiate all of the other possible explanations for why a school’s applicant pool might grow—for example, more and generous scholarships, the ease of filing applications online, or a new, attractive major in nursing or engineering. And more to the point, what happened when a football team struggled? Did the applicant pool shrink? Did the student body become dumber?

Alabama touts its football program as one of the biggest and richest in the land. It has a stadium that seats 101,000 fans; a waiting list for season tickets 26,000 strong; a coach it pays $6.5 million a season, not including bonuses; and a support staff that rivals any in the NFL. Every year Alabama adds another shiny new bauble to its football program. In 2013 it opened a new weight room featuring 37,000 square feet of racks, weights, juice bars, and nutrition stations. Alabama already had one of the largest weight rooms in the country, but apparently it wasn’t enough to impress the seventeen- and eighteen-year-old recruits who keep the team humming. So Alabama invested $9 million in this facility and, while it was at it, added a new locker room with hydrotherapy pools and a waterfall. On paper the Alabama athletic department appeared to be piling up debt like a third-world republic, owing bondholders more than $200 million on its athletic facilities alone. I had a sense—and not for the first time—of the Titanic steaming blindly into an ice field. But when I asked Bill Battle, Alabama’s athletic director, about it, he assured me that everything was under control.

“Do you ever worry all of this might be a bubble?” I asked.

“A bubble? No, I don’t think so,” Battle replied. “I do worry that we could start losing. But honestly, I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s just a good time to be around Alabama football, a very, very good time.”

And then, I think, he actually winked.

• • •

Given the potential riches to be gained, it isn’t very surprising that other college presidents would develop football envy. When they see Alabama and Oregon raking in millions or tens of millions, it inspires a kind of magical thinking: Why not us? Why shouldn’t we collect millions and be on ESPN’s College GameDay? Many college presidents simply can’t imagine a campus without a football team. And then, once they have a team, they can’t imagine its playing in anything but a big, shiny new stadium costing tens (or even hundreds) of millions of dollars. How else can you explain why so many otherwise smart men and women with “PhD” appended to the end of their names would risk economic ruin in hopes of winning the football jackpot?

The data, however, show that the presidents are on the wrong side of a losing bet. The preponderance of the schools that start football programs, or shift from lower levels of competition to higher levels, lose money. And not just a little: millions and millions of dollars that might otherwise be used for building a new lab or lowering tuition. But there is no telling the presidents. Even as they lose huge sums, the presidents tell themselves football is their winning ticket—the quickest and surest path to a competitive advantage. What they don’t seem to recognize is that if every school plays football, then it is the same as if no one played football; if everyone has a competitive advantage, then no one has a competitive advantage and, thus, such massively expensive wagers are for naught.

One of those who ardently believed in the transcendent nature of football was Anthony Catanese, president of the Florida Institute of Technology, a private university of six thousand students located in Melbourne, on the central Atlantic coast. On its Web site, Florida Tech cleverly describes itself as an A+ school for B students. In 2013 it ranked 167th among national universities in the U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings. Two thirds of its students are from out of state, including several thousand from foreign nations. Like those of many other Florida colleges, the campus appears new and shiny, a cross between a Disney theme park and a summer astronaut camp.

During his first decade at Florida Tech, Catanese started many new programs, expanded the campus, and added a football team. It was not his first experience with football. Prior to arriving in Melbourne, Catanese had spent a dozen years as president of Florida Atlantic University, a larger public university in Boca Raton, where he had also initiated a football program. “As far as we know, Dr. Catanese is the only president to start football teams at two different schools,” Florida Tech’s spokesman, Wes Sumner, told me. And like me, he seemed to marvel at the audacity of the idea.

I decided I could learn something from Catanese, so I arranged a telephone interview and later visited the campus. The president is seventy years old but looks younger, with feathery white hair and a healthy tan. He has run more than thirty marathons and used to drive a red Corvette. “Actually, my wife hated the way it drove,” he said. “We traded it in for another car.”

Catanese grew up in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and went to Rutgers for his undergraduate education. He told me he “loved football as a kid” and enjoyed watching Rutgers play. Thus, a football team was an important part of his strategy for raising Florida Atlantic’s profile from a commuter school to a regional university. “I don’t have to tell you, football is incredibly important in Florida,” he said. “I did it primarily because a school that big [25,000 students spread across several campuses] really should have a football program.”

Catanese had heard that Howard Schnellenberger was living down the Florida turnpike in Miami and invited him to lunch. The pipe-smoking Schnellenberger was a Florida legend. A decade earlier he’d led the University of Miami to a national championship and then went on to coach at Louisville and the University of Oklahoma. When Catanese lai...

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