Money has always had a significant influence over major-college sports. It just used to be impolite to talk about it so openly.
But the cash is pouring into the coffers at big schools like never before, and the conversation has become more honest. Every fan knows the salary of the multimillion-dollar football coaches, follows along breathlessly as schools decide which “power conference” to join, and anticipates the windfall whenever a massive new TV contract comes along.
At the center of all of this is football, the sport that always has a seat at the table when negotiations are ongoing, while the minor sports are left pacing in the hallway.
But, when big money is forcing universities to make big decisions, who is looking out for the gymnasts and the swimmers, the runners and the golfers?
“Unfortunately, in the decision-making of conference realignment, the Olympic sports have no bearing at all. I think it creates a lot of dynamics that aren’t in the best interest of student-athletes,” Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said.
“However, these conference realignments are being done for financial reasons, and those help all sports.”
In the short term, Pollard appears to be right. Major colleges are sharing the wealth that football has brought them with sports teams far outside the spotlight. But there also is concern that the status quo may not last if the pressure to maximize each dollar investment grows.
Tide of money raises all ships
The Big 12 Conference that Iowa State belongs to appeared to be teetering toward extinction just two years ago. Colorado and Nebraska had bolted, Missouri and Texas A&M were on the verge of leaving, and rumors had mighty Texas not far behind.
Things stabilized when West Virginia and Texas Christian came on board. Soon, a new 13-year, $2.6 billion TV contract was signed with ESPN and Fox Sports and each of the Big 12’s 10 schools are set to receive $20 million annually from that.
The Big Ten has never had such dire worries. It’s a more enduring brand, and the advent of the Big Ten Network has infused more cash. Each of the conference’s 12 schools, including Iowa, raked in $25.7 million in TV money last year, $7.6 million of that from the league’s own network.
That money goes to the entire athletic department, but it’s no secret that only football and men’s basketball are self-sufficient at most big universities. Sports like wrestling, women’s basketball and volleyball can be as well, depending on the fan interest.
The rest of the sports carry the “non-revenue” label, and that can be self-fulfilling, according to one national expert.
“When eliminations are going to be made, it will depend on the perceived value of that sport to a school,” said Coyte Cooper, an assistant professor of sport administration at North Carolina.
“College sports are supposed to be about participation, learning lessons, and more and more it’s about revenue.”
The athletes in such sports, who sweat and toil in relative anonymity for a shot at a free education, are certainly aware of where they stand.
“It’s not a term we use, but I definitely know that we’re in it,” Iowa gymnast and Iowa City native Mitchell Landau said of the “non-revenue” tag.
“When I was younger, I didn’t really notice all the stuff that goes on with college sports. But I’ve really been able to notice that (gymnastics is) not considered such a big sport. I was just excited to be able to go on to college and to actually be on an athletic team. I always wanted to be a Hawkeye.”
The good news for athletes like Landau is that the evidence so far suggests colleges are willing to use their finances to bolster non-revenue sports, not seek ways to drop them.
That’s not a surprise to Max Urick, former athletic director at Iowa State and Kansas State. Now retired, he is convinced that the current crop of administrators is eager to support student-athletes across the spectrum of sports.
“They have a much better experience now than they ever have before. They have better equipment, travel budgets, training and medical support,” Urick said of non-revenue athletes. “I think there’s a lot to be said for giving opportunities to young men and women. We get so consumed with football, basketball and the revenue that we don’t stop to analyze the essence of sport and what role it does play in a young person’s life.
“It’s a race that they’re in, no doubt about it. But I think the quality of the experience shouldn’t be just measured by wins and losses or by the money you can make. TV money has been a real boon to the non-revenue sports.”
In Ames, for example, Pollard pointed to a new outdoor track, locker rooms for soccer and upgrades to the swimming pool as projects funded by the TV revenue windfall.
Iowa has opened a state-of-the-art swimming facility in recent years, but also has provided simpler things like better mats for its gymnasts to practice on.
Nebraska is so flush with cash that it has decided to add a sand volleyball team.
“It’s allowed us to strengthen our commitment,” Pollard said of spending on non-revenue sports.
“In Ames, Iowa, we’re a company town and Iowa State’s the company. The town and gown really support our Olympic sports.”
Soaking in success out of spotlight
That may be, but it didn’t stop Cyclone swimming and diving coach Duane Sorenson from feeling unsettled when conference realignment talks first surfaced. Iowa State dropped its men’s swimming program in 2001, and the Big 12 fields only five women’s teams. So being forced to move to a smaller conference, where funding would likely be reduced, had Sorenson fearing for the future of his sport in Ames.
He couldn’t be more content these days, after the conference stayed together and secured its lucrative TV contract. He said Pollard has put $200,000 worth of upgrades into the 50-year-old pool at Beyer Hall, including a new video board, starting blocks, lane lines and a timing system.
Sorenson, who has coached the Cyclones for 16 seasons, was even appreciative of the chance to buy a “power tower” device that his swimmers can use for resistance training.
“It’s $2,500, but in our world that’s a huge amount of money,” he said.
It is sports like swimming that lure student-athletes in the purest form of that term to universities. Sorenson is proud to note that his program has a 100 percent graduation rate among those who exhausted their four years of eligibility.
“I sell to my recruits the academics. Because in our sport, and a number of Olympic sports, this is the pinnacle that the kids are going to be at,” Sorenson said. “So we sell their education along with their training to reach their potential as an athlete.”
Bre Loeschke embodies that philosophy. The Minnesotan chose Iowa State after falling in love with the campus and community. Raised by a single father, she realized the value of getting her education paid for through the exhausting hours she spent in the pool.
“I don’t think people understand how much work we have to do for our sport. Two-a-day practices at 6 a.m., weights, stadiums that we run three times a week. It’s 20 hours a week plus time we put in on our own,” Loeschke said.
The payoff will be a degree in human development that she should earn next year, followed by a career devoted to helping underprivileged youth. And the satisfaction of pushing herself toward a goal she wasn’t sure she could realize this season.
Loeschke set an Iowa State record by finishing the 200-meter backstroke in 1 minute, 56.9 seconds at the Big 12 Championships.
“I’ve always wanted to go that fast,” she said. “I always thought I was capable, but I never thought I’d actually do it, if that makes sense.”
Loeschke knows collegiate swimmers will never get the acclaim of the football and basketball players. Crowds at their meets usually consist of family members, and that’s with free admission. She said the sport is too “boring” to receive widespread TV coverage.
But she is far from resentful of that, even joking that the swimmers have a vested interest in the success of the football team.
“We get excited when they go to bowl games, because we know that’s going to help us, too,” she said of the money that brings. “We know how the system works.”
Across the state in Iowa City, the men’s gymnasts have surveyed the college sports landscape as well. There are only 17 such programs left in the United States, since men’s teams are more likely to be scrapped to comply with Title IX gender-equity regulations. But seven of those 17 are in the Big Ten, and the Hawkeyes are on the upswing competitively, finishing fifth in the nation this year.
Landau, a walk-on on the Hawkeye gymnastics team, said he was worried about the program’s fate when he was in high school. Iowa wasn’t competitive, and there was no enthusiasm surrounding the program until J.D. Reive left his job as a Stanford assistant three years ago to lead Iowa.
“The coach is who really makes the experience. I don’t care what the equipment is like,” Landau said.
Thanks to the Big Ten Network, Hawkeye gymnastics meets are even getting a little more regional exposure. Some meets are televised, and all can be streamed live now, Landau said, noting that his parents will occasionally show their support for the team by tuning in on the televisions in their local restaurants such as the Brown Bottle.
“I’m used to it being an overlooked sport,” Landau said. “But when I’m in my element, I’m going to do my own thing. It doesn’t matter to me how many people are watching.”
Securing a future for all sports
If the universities’ bookkeepers are watching, they’ll note that sports like gymnastics and swimming routinely cost Football Bowl Subdivision schools $400,000-500,000 a year, according to the most recent NCAA report. The teams spend about $60,000 a year in travel alone, with no chance of recouping that money through ticket sales.
Iowa spent $1.3 million to transport its non-revenue teams in 2012, just more than 20 percent of its total travel budget. That figures to grow, though, when Maryland and Rutgers join a 14-team Big Ten next fall.
Still, that’s not a crippling amount when compared to the $20 million and more coming in through TV revenue.
Sorenson, for example, is hopeful that his Cyclone swim team’s future is secured.
“I feel like we’re on solid ground,” he said. “Now that the Big 12 is settled and you don’t have all these guys trying to see who’s king of the hill.”
But if the TV money ever dwindles, or another economic recession hits, there’s little doubt which sports programs would be the first to feel the pinch.
Cooper, the North Carolina professor, specializes in helping non-revenue teams market themselves better. His advice to the leaders of non-revenue teams:
“If we’re going to the route where athletic departments are going to try to make as much money as they can, they’re probably going to have to close that gap, whether it’s money-raising or better branding through social media.”
Cooper was a wrestler at Indiana, so you don’t have to convince him of what’s at stake.
“Sport and participation as an athlete in the Big Ten, at the college level, has made me who I am today,” he said. “It’s taught me how to manage time, it’s taught me how to set goals, it’s taught me how to compete. When you get the right type of support and people are watching it, it becomes an entertainment option. That’s what we need to have happen more often.”
College athletic departments are undoubtedly big businesses now, and the pressure will inevitably lead to finding ways for every individual sport to add to the bottom line.
Urick, the retired athletic director, noted that contrast and offered an impassioned plea for valuing all student-athletes.
“We had sports, we didn’t have programs. We had a golf team, we didn’t have a golf program,” he said.
“You can’t compromise the classic values of sports. The competition, the value of teamwork, learning about hard work, learning about setting goals, learning about setting limits, the sacrifices to reach those goals, and the most important is learning. You can learn those same values in all sports, not just football.”
IOWA’S TRIP COSTS IN 2012
Northwestern — 5,200
Wisconsin — 2,400
US Senior Nationals — 12,200
Arizona — 25,100
Notre Dame — 11,200
Postseason — 7,600
Subtotal — 63,700
Minnesota — 2,200
Nebraska — 2,300
Oklahoma — 14,200
Illinois-Chicago — 3,900
Chicago — 400
Colorado Springs — 1,000
Postseason — 36,200
Subtotal — 60,100
Michigan — 3,400
Northwestern — 5,400
Ohio State — 1,800
Penn State — 12,700
Purdue — 5,300
Wisconsin — 1,200
Drake — 2,000
Baylor — 4,100
Big Ten Championships — 5,000
Spring Trips — 6,300
Illinois State — 700
ITA Regionals — 4,200
Rice — 14,300
All American Tennis — 2,000
William & Mary — 9,900
Western Michigan — 2,900
Subtotal — 81,200
MEN’S TRACK / CROSS COUNTRY
Iowa State — 6,000
Minnesota — 2,600
Northern Iowa — 200
Drake — 1,800
Nebraska — 7,100
Missouri — 3,300
Big Ten Championships — 25,500
LSU — 33,900
Notre Dame — 500
Arkansas — 35,900
Last Chance Meet — 2,300
Stanford Invitational — 1,600
University of Washington — 6,200
New Balance Invitational — 5,400
Postseason — 82,100
Subtotal — 214,500
Golf Van Maint./Fuel/etc. — 5,500
Minnesota — 1,200
Purdue — 3,000
Baylor — 4,600
Big Ten Championships — 4,600
LSU — 15,800
Spring Trips — 12,800
Georgia Tech — 4,500
Big Four Golf Tournament — 15,700
Big Ten Match Play — 10,000
Black & Gold Alumni Match — 6,000
Golfweek Conference Challenge — 200
Duke — 4,900
Postseason — 23,300
Subtotal — 112,100
Solon — 2,300
Big Ten Championships — 20,500
Oklahoma — 16,900
Winter Training — 56,000
Spring Trips — 73,100
Notre Dame — 14,100
San Diego State — 27,500
Head of the Rock — 4,400
Alabama — 27,500
Subtotal — 242,300
WOMEN’S FIELD HOCKEY
Michigan — 8,000
Northwestern — 13,700
Ohio State — 15,200
ACC/Big Ten Challenge — 13,700
Big Ten Championships — 34,300
Ball State — 5,900
Ohio University — 3,000
Louisville — 8,100
Providence — 24,000
Postseason — 18,300
Subtotal — 144,100
Indiana — 6,100
Ohio State — 3,100
Nebraska — 3,700
Big Ten Championships — 4,400
Southern Illinois – Carbondale — 2,700
Arizona — 5,700
Texas — 12,700
Dick McGuire Invitational — 6,200
Wyoming — 6,800
Hawaii — 17,400
Subtotal — 69,000
Iowa State — 1,000
Ohio State — 9,400
Denver – 25,200
Cancun — 25,600
Texas Women’s University — 13,600
Postseason — 26,400
Subtotal — 101,300
Iowa State — 1,900
Northwestern — 5,300
Wisconsin — 2,300
Northern Iowa — 1,100
US Diving Selection Camp — 4,200
US Senior Nationals — 4,600
Arizona — 26,500
Notre Dame — 11,300
Postseason — 6,200
Subtotal — 63,400
Illinois — 700
Indiana — 800
Minnesota — 6,000
Northwestern — 4,600
Purdue — 4,100
Nebraska — 1,800
Big Ten Championships — 13,700
Oklahoma — 6,900
Spring Trips — 7,600
Notre Dame — 1,700
ITA Regionals — 5,200
All American Tennis — 1,700
Postseason — 3,800
Subtotal — 58,600
WOMEN’S TRACK / CROSS COUNTRY
Iowa State — 5,800
Wisconsin — 2,800
Drake — 6,000
Nebraska — 7,100
Missouri — 2,500
Big Ten Championships — 25,300
LSU — 24,900
Notre Dame — 2,100
Arkansas — 22,500
Stanford Invitational — 11,400
Wichita State — 3,400
Loyola University — 3,100
New Balance Invitational — 1,900
Postseason — 36,000
Subtotal — 154,900
Category: Hawkeye news