Tennessee battles Texas A&M in the 2013 SEC Tournament. (File Photo by Kelly Kline)
Tennessee battles Texas A&M in the 2013 SEC Tournament. (File Photo by Kelly Kline)

The Ackerman Report (12): It's a bottom-line world

October 16, 2013 - 12:19pm

(This is the 12th in a series on Val Ackerman’s report on college basketball.)

In ancient Greece, where the idea of formally educating children in groups began, the first step was the gymnasium – which worked young men into the physical condition required to become citizen-soldiers and defend the walls against aggressors.

Over time, academics were added, but the focus was always on physical activity, eventually leading to professional athletes who competed in the Olympics and the other Greek festivals.

So why am I talking about ancient Greece in an article about women’s basketball in the 21st century? Because in modern America, the roles are reversed, with athletics being added on to academics – and in neither case does it really make sense to cram the two into one institution.

The unwieldy American marriage between athletics and academics also must bow to the increasingly ruthless American economic system, which becomes more red in tooth and claw with each passing year. If you can’t afford health care, then you suffer; if you can’t justify an activity with the bottom line, then it’s simply not going to last.

Luckily for women’s sports, one of the unintended consequences of Title IX was to force any publicly funded educational institution (which is pretty much all of them, one way or another) to support girls in sports just as much as it does boys – and thus we have women’s college basketball in its present form.

But things are tough all over, and universities are finding it harder and harder to support athletics, and indeed finding it harder and harder to support quality education, and thus all aspects of college finances are open to examination.

It is not surprising, then, that money-losing activities such as women’s sports are under fire from bottom-line-focused administrators. They can justify football and men’s basketball because a) they generate TV money and gate receipts, and b) they energize and motivate donors. But what does, say, women’s basketball do for a university?

In rare cases, of course, women’s basketball sells lots of tickets and produces lots of positive publicity. Tennessee, Stanford, UConn and a few others are examples of the positives that can come from women’s basketball – but of the more than 300 Division I programs, how many can claim to be revenue-positive?

Ah, but that’s not the point, some will say. The math department doesn’t generate any income, and there’s no talk of eliminating that. But any student can take math, and only those the university is supporting (through scholarships) can play Division I basketball. And really, how does the women’s basketball team, or any non-revenue sport, fit with the 21st century model of education? (How did learning Zeno’s skeptical philosophy help train hoplites for Greek city-states?)

The answer, in both cases, is “not well”, so one goal for women’s basketball would certainly be to look at expenses, and trim any fat, while at the same time trying to increase revenue.

To take the second point first, there’s no question that the most effective way to increase revenue is to win more games. The better the team, the better the chances of selling tickets, getting sponsors, and so on. So any cuts in expenses can’t make the team worse, or the purpose will be defeated.

Which leads us to one significant cost-saving proposal: Cutting the Division I scholarship limit from 15 to 13. Val Ackerman suggests taking the two extra scholarships and giving them to other women’s sports, but regardless, this is an excellent first step, for not only will it cut costs, it will also spread the wealth and hopefully create more quality teams. (This is a trickle-down theory that makes sense – if Tennessee has to not sign two good players, they’re going to wind up somewhere else, making that team better. And that school’s roster will now send four players down to the next level (the two from Tennessee plus the two scholarships it no longer has). And it doesn’t hurt Tennessee, which after all can only play five at a time, and it helps everyone else.)

Another obvious cut: Conference tournaments. The only reason women’s basketball has conference tournaments is that the men do – and that makes no sense, for a variety of reasons. First, “just because the boys do it” is a lousy reason for girls to do anything, and second, most men’s tournaments make money, while almost all women’s tournaments lose money. In fact, with travel costs thrown in, women’s tournaments literally cost Division I schools more than $10 million a year, and to what purpose? So a team that proved itself the best over two months of conference play can get knocked out of the NCAA tournament by a banked-in three at the buzzer? So every team that doesn’t win the tournament picks up another loss and thus lessens its chances for an at-large bid?

A possible money-saver: Regionalizing and centralizing summer recruiting. As it is, with the proliferation of summer tournaments and with top players spread out at multiple sites, college coaches must fly all over to see the players who they must see, and recruit, to win games. If all the players were in one or two spots at certain times, then colleges could save significant amounts of money every summer – and remember, if each Division I school saved $5,000 each summer, that’s $1.5 million.

Of course, there are reasons to maintain the status quo, and if everything was hunky-dory, then there would be no reason to change. But remember that the football schools, the 8,000-pound gorillas of college sports, are bent on making major changes in the way the NCAA works, and add to that the financial uncertainty of many universities and the increasingly unaffordable cost of a college education, and it’s pretty clear that the road ahead is going to take a sharp turn.

What direction that turn will be is very hard to say, and even though Title IX is likely in no danger, the sooner women’s basketball gets as lean as possible, the better – because once the budgetary ax starts falling, these last 20 years of NCAA women’s basketball will be no more relevant to the next 20 than are the ancient Greek gymnasiums with their courses on Archimedes and Sophocles.