Wednesday, April 19, 2006

You Can Show Me the Money, But I Might Not Look
My favorite sports blog, Deadspin (part of the Gawker media empire, and thus a cousin to Wonkette), linked to a story this morning about the University of Georgia athletic department, which is the most profitable in the country. In fiscal year 2005, Georgia sports made a profit of $24.9 million. The story is notable to me because the Wisconsin Badgers are ranked third. The Badger athletic programs raked in $75.3 million last year. With expenses of $59.5 million, that leaves a profit of $15.8 million, behind Michigan and a little ahead of Texas and Alabama.

At Wisconsin, the money is coming primarily from three sports. Football is sold out on a season-ticket basis, as is men's basketball. Just to get on the waiting list for tickets requires a significant contribution to the Badger Fund, the athletic department's fundraising arm--$500 every year for football, and an astounding $2500 a year for men's basketball. That's not for season tickets, that's to maintain your place on the list for the right to buy season tickets should any become available. Men's hockey is the third revenue-producing sport--and the figures from the just-completed national championship season, which included several sellouts at the Kohl Center and thousands of dollars in championship merchandise, aren't included in the figures released this week. You might think trademark-licensed merchandising would contribute a big slice of the revenue pie, but it doesn't. It was reported a couple of weeks ago that licensing brought in about $800,000 last year--not much, given the amount of stuff you can buy up here bearing the trademarked images of Bucky Badger or the university's "motion W" logo.

The insane profitability of major-college sports is the elephant in the room that fans don't usually talk about. We don't talk about the fact that colleges make their enormous profits on the backs of athletes who don't get paid a dime for what they do. Yes, they get scholarships, but on a dollars-per-hour basis, even a four-year free ride works out to peanuts.

We also don't talk about the byzantine forest of regulations the NCAA has instituted to maintain the supposed amateur status of what it likes to call the "student athlete." Here's my favorite example: The son of a couple we know plays hockey for the Badgers. We met this couple several years ago, while their son was still in high school. But because their son is now an athlete and The Mrs. and I are season-ticket holders, it would be an NCAA violation if we bought his parents dinner, even if we'd been picking up dinner checks for years before. If The Mrs. and I had been sending their son birthday presents since he was a baby, that would become a violation too, as soon as he became a member of the team. These and other equally odd rules exist in large part to protect the system as it currently exists--to preserve the profitability of college sports.

Many fans don't think about this stuff at all, and those of us who do think about it don't dwell on it. We focus instead on the games themselves, or on the pageantry the games involve, or on our participation in the glorious history of the university, or on recapturing our undergraduate past, or on something else entirely. I'm as guilty as anyone on this score. I realize that the system is wack--that it's crazy for the UW's football coach and athletic director, who are public employees, after all, to be paid more than the governor of Wisconsin. But I also happily contribute to the system. You should see the cool hockey championship hat I bought.

What He Said: Michael Tomasky, writing at The American Prospect, thinks 2006 could be the year of a major political realignment, just as 1932 and 1980 were--provided that Democrats figure out what they stand for beyond a constellation of individual ideas. Tomasky's suggestion is something I've advocated here and elsewhere for a long time: the idea of the the common good. This is a great article, long and loaded with good stuff, so go read. Soon.

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