Anaheim, Calif.—For decades, college sports has had history on its side.
Does that sound like a bit too much caffeinated hyperbole, fueled perhaps by the three large cups of coffee I’ve consumed today while racing from one end of the Marriott to the other? Possibly. I do like coffee. But I also enjoy a dose of historical context every now and then.
So consider this brief retrospective, courtesy of Bob De Carolis, the athletic director at Oregon State University, who brought it up during a discussion here on controlling costs in college sports:
“I got in this business in 1979,” Mr. De Carolis said Wednesday afternoon to an audience of a few dozen athletics administrators. “Cost containment was on the table then, and it’s on the table again [now].”
But athletics departments have been lucky. “Every four or five years,” he said, “we find some sort of revenue nugget that helps us.” With startling regularity, a new revenue stream always seems to appear, just in time to infuse athletics departments with more cash—and allow them to hold off on making truly painful cuts, he said.
To wit: In the 1980s, the licensing of collegiate trademarks brought a windfall of cash to many athletics departments. Then, the Universities of Georgia and Oklahoma won their landmark antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA over the television broadcast of college football games—thus allowing conferences to cut their own deals with networks and cash in on the airing of those games.
The NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament was the next savior. Expanding in 1985 to 64 teams, then in 2001 to 65, the NCAA has garnered billions of dollars for itself and its member colleges through a series of ever more lucrative television-rights deals with CBS. (In April, the association inked its most recent broadcast agreement with CBS and Turner Broadcasting, valued at $10.8-billion for a 68-team field.) Next came the Bowl Championship Series, in 1998, with its hefty payouts to schools in the six major conferences.
More recently, the advent of the Big Ten Network, in 2007, and the latest reshuffling of a handful of universities in three big conferences have allowed certain colleges and leagues to jockey for more revenue. All the while, individual programs have found ways to monetize everything—priority parking, video box scores, spring football games—to keep pace with rising expenses.
It’s an impressive, fortuitous, and slightly dizzying list. The only question, Mr. De Carolis said, is this: “Will it ever run out?”
Judging from the sparse attendance in the room this afternoon, athletic directors are firm believers that history, for better or worse, repeats itself.