In 1995, Joe Arcese, an administrator for a large urban college, had an idea. Enrollment was flagging, and the school had such low visibility that many potential students never even applied, because they didn't think it was a genuine academic institution.
"Back in the mid-'90s, a lot of people thought it was a two-year college," Arcese recalls. So with the blessing of the college president, he embarked on an ambitious campaign to raise the school's profile with sports.
"If we were getting our name in the paper a lot through our athletic programs, as a big-time four-year institution, it would increase our reputation," Arcese says. "And I thought that if we got good athletes, they'd bring their friends," thereby boosting enrollment.
The plan began with the hiring of top coaches at top dollar. The first year, Arcese brought in a successful professional basketball coach who'd been working in Australia. Today, his $125,000 annual salary -- plus a car -- makes him one of the highest-paid Division II men's basketball coaches in the country.
Next, Arcese recruited one of the best women's volleyball coaches in the country. When she left several years later to become the college's athletic director, another coach was hired; her current $52,000 yearly salary is tops in the conference. The school soon added a new soccer coach, too, as well as new women's basketball and tennis leaders.
The new coaches started recruiting talented athletes. But there was still something missing: A top-quality sports program with designs on national success needed the best facilities. And so the college signed on to an industrious plan to install new athletic digs.
The old baseball diamond, which didn't even have a scoreboard, was replaced. New soccer fields were built from the ground up. The old gymnasium still sported a soft tartan floor. It was ripped up and replaced with shiny hardwood.
Arcese's free-spending plan soon began to pay dividends. In 2000, and again in 2002, the men's basketball team won national Division II titles. "We were getting front-page articles in the paper almost every day," he remembers. The women's volleyball team is currently ranked No. 7 nationally in its division; the women's soccer team is the No. 1 ranked Division II team in the country.
The school, of course, is Metropolitan State College, home of the Roadrunners. Arcese retired last year, but not before proclaiming the strategy to make his school a higher-profile institution through sports a success. "We paid for it," he says, "but it worked."
But that very program could now be teetering on extinction. At a meeting of the college's board of trustees last month, several boardmembers, noting the high cost of maintaining the school's jocks, proposed axing the entire department. Why is Metro spending all that money on sports, they wondered, when it could be directed toward new humanities professors or student scholarships?
For the moment, the proposal is little more than a talking point. Metro's trustees are also scouring the rest of the school's budget and curriculum for money-saving cuts and restructurings. Still, with the early signing period for student-athletes just around the corner, it is the idea of ditching one of the state's most successful sports programs that has caused the biggest ruckus.
College sports have become such an integral part of the athletic landscape that nobody really questions why they exist anymore. The Metro dispute will probably dissolve; after all, there's not that much money at stake. But it's still worth asking: Why play games at all?
At first blush, funding for public-university athletics doesn't make much logical sense. That is, the bigger a university's sports program is, the less money it typically needs from taxpayers.
The University of Colorado at Boulder, for example, spends a whopping $36.5 million a year to maintain its Division I intercollegiate sports program. Yet the state picks up only about $535,000 of that total; another $1.4 million comes from student fees. The rest of the program supports itself.
The reason is CU's size and success. Fielding a football team can be as expensive as paying for a standing army. If the gridders are good enough, however, they pay their own way. Through TV deals and sold-out dates at Folsom Field, the (until recently) competitive Buffs football team manages to contribute about $18.5 million in annual revenue to the university's athletic program. The Buffs basketball squad adds another $2.2 million.
As with business successes, the rich get richer, and athletic accomplishment tends to build on itself. Last year, CU's athletic program attracted about $8 million in private contributions, much of it from proud alumni and giant corporate sponsors such as Nike.
Compare that with Colorado State University, which has the state's second-largest athletic department. While the Rams have had some success building a successful football program, the squad is still mostly a regional phenomenon. Other sports are even lesser known outside of Fort Collins. As a result, nearly one-third of CSU's $18 million annual athletic budget must be subsidized by student fees and taxpayers.
Generally speaking, the proportion of school support increases as the programs decrease in size. The University of Northern Colorado, whose Bears won Division II football titles in 1996 and 1997, spends about $4 million a year on its jocks. A little more than half of that comes from state coffers and student fees. Athletes who attend tiny Adams State, in Alamosa, are subsidized even more. With the exception of about $300,000, the school's $1.7 million intercollegiate athletic budget is supported entirely by taxpayers and student fees.
On the far side of the subsidy scale is the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. According to athletic director Randy Cubero, the Mountain Lions spend about $950,000 a year to support 150 athletes playing fourteen intercollegiate sports. With a high-school-sized 350-seat gymnasium and only 600 scholars out of a student body of 7,000 living on campus, the sports program has almost no income beyond what it gets from the state and through student fees. Cubero's highest-paid coach earns about $30,000 a year. "I gotta do something about that," he sighs. "It's ridiculous."
Proportionately speaking, then, Metro's sporting budget is hardly out of line with other schools competing in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Metro's athletic director, Joan McDermott -- the former volleyball coach -- puts the athletic department's budget at about $2.5 million a year. As with Adams State, the vast majority of that comes from the state (about $1.2 million) and student fees (another $1 million).
That said, Metro's sports program as originally envisioned and implemented by Arcese nearly a decade ago is a Cadillac version of an athletic department. The proof can be found in how much the school pours into each athlete. By that standard, Metro's athletics are very expensive, indeed.
Consider: Adams State's $1.7 million intercollegiate athletic budget provides opportunity for about 350 jocks to compete in fourteen sports. That averages out to $4,850 per athlete.
Metro's intercollegiate athletic program, by comparison, supports only 250 athletes in ten sports. At $2.5 million, that averages out to $10,000 per student-athlete -- or more than double what the Grizzlies spend. What's more, unlike Adams State, Metro doesn't even support an expensive football team.
"Their administration made a commitment to excel at athletics," points out J.R. Smith, commissioner of the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Such an undertaking, he adds, costs money.
The difference inspires envy among the Roadrunners' RMAC competitors. "We wish we were more like Metro," admits Jeff Geiser, Adams State's athletic director. "Our philosophy here has been to make do with less. But I don't want to be one of those programs that makes do with less. When our basketball coach saw [Metro basketball coach] Mike Dunlap's contract, he came to me and said, 'I want to make that.' I told him, 'You do. It's just spread out over three years.'"
There are several reasons that colleges and universities support athletic programs on campus. One is that watching sports together and rooting for a school team adds something positive to campus life.
"Our biggest benefit is providing a full campus atmosphere," explains Tim Corrigan, athletic director for Denver's Johnson & Wales campus. The four-campus school believes so much in the notion of athletics-as-community-builder that last year it decided to build an intercollegiate sports program from scratch -- from zero to ten sports teams in two years.
On an even more basic level, intercollegiate sporting events give students something to do. This is particularly important in smaller communities such as Alamosa or Greeley, where a college football or basketball game might literally be the only game in town.
Neither of those benefits apply particularly to Metro. The college sits in the center of one of the most frenetic spectator-sports cities in the country. Anyone interested in taking in a game could watch professional football, hockey, soccer, baseball or basketball -- all within a mile of the Metro campus. No matter how good Metro's basketball team is, there are still plenty of other must-see games being played on any given night.
Metro doesn't have a college campus in the traditional sense of the word, either. With no dormitories on the grounds, the campus life of many students effectively ends when classes are over. Most Metro attendees are also non-traditional students -- older, mid-career students who already have lives outside their studies. While some of them may appreciate having a top-ranked volleyball team to watch, most are simply making career moves. Last year, only 5,500 student tickets were sold to all of Metro's athletic events.
The other rationale for spending a couple million dollars on a competitive sports program is to boost enrollment. Despite their high-minded mission of education and scholarship, colleges are all about income. This is true even among publicly funded institutions, whose budgets are calculated based on the number of students attending classes. The more students who attend, the more money the school receives from taxpayers and tuition.
A sports program on campus can help build the student body in a couple of ways. The first is direct. "A student who wants to participate in athletics will come to a college to participate," says Jim Fallis, athletic director at the University of Northern Colorado. "If we didn't have an athletic program and another school did -- and an athlete wanted to go to a school and major in history -- the school with the athletic program would be a factor" in convincing him to attend UNC versus some other school.
Fallis points out that an intercollegiate athletic program doesn't attract just athletes, either. At UNC, for instance, he says it's doubtful that the thirty students enrolled in the school's athletic-training program would be attending UNC if there were no sports program. The same holds true for the 170-member marching band, or the twenty-odd students who are cheerleaders. "It's all part of the buying and selling of an institution," he notes.
Sports boosters also like to say that having an intercollegiate sports program on campus attracts other students who might otherwise not attend -- friends and relatives of the athletes themselves, usually. Still, precisely how many tagalongs are drawn by sports is a matter of some debate. "One athlete brings one other person with him," claims Geiser, the Adams State athletic director. "With 350 athletes, that equals 700 students, or one-third of our student body."
Cubero, the UCCS athletic director, cites more optimistic figures. "Every student athlete brings in ten to fifteen other students," he insists. Regardless of the numbers, proponents argue that the negligible cost of supporting a campus's athletic habit is more than made up by the money the athletes pay in tuition.
Once again, however, such reasoning doesn't really apply to Metro State. With an enrollment of 20,000 full- and part-time students, adding 250 -- or even 500 -- to the rolls is probably not enough of a financial incentive to fund a full athletic program.
That leaves the somewhat vaguer benefit of an athletic program's public-relations value. High-profile college athletic programs certainly can cash in on their successes. "Last month, [television station] TBS came in and filmed twelve vignettes of our school that they're going to dump into the broadcast of their Saturday football game," boasts Dave Plati, CU-Boulder's director of sports information. "That's pretty good PR value. What would the cost be if you had to buy twelve one-minute spots?"
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Yet not all successes are equal, and there are vast differences in how much a victory on the field enhances a school's image. A CU or an Oklahoma may see a surge in student applications after it wins a national Division I football title. But how many undecided students will make up their mind to attend Adams State because the tiny state school in southern Colorado boasts the top Division II men's and women's cross-country teams?
Metro's sports boosters insist the answer is "Enough." "Athletics is the window to the institution," says McDermott. "Much of what you hear about colleges is through their athletic program. Here at Metro, we've been a model program -- not only with winning, but our athletes are good students, as well. We're doing it right."
Between 1994 and 1995, when Arcese instigated his sports program, and this year, Metro's full-time equivalent student enrollment did climb just under 16 percent. Yet it's impossible to know how many of those students came because of the Roadrunners' success on the field and in the gym. After all, according to the state's Commission on Higher Education, FTE enrollment at Colorado's four-year institutions of higher learning as a whole increased at just about the same rate during that eight-year period -- even though most of the schools failed to win a national sports title.
When it comes down to it, the fuss over Metro's sports program is much ado over small change. In a yearly budget of $105 million, a million dollars doesn't really amount to much. You might argue that Denver has enough sports to pay attention to and that the purpose of college is to be found in the classroom, not on a field. On the other hand, athletics are all about human achievement -- certainly not a concept that is foreign to a college.