A Word About Athletics

Traveling from one place to another, a common theme has arisen in the quest to garner more students; “Let’s add a sport or two.”

The rationale is that coaches are pretty good at delivering a roster of athletes and if the sport is brand new to the institution, it represents additive students.  These newfound athletes wind up paying net tuition, room and board, with the operating costs of the sport representing the only offset.

Good in theory but practice shows the need for approaching this kind of an initiative with extra care.

First is whether the admissions process is sufficiently equipped to process a group of new students.  What I have seen is a successful addition of a new sport, filling every roster slot, but with a drop-off in non-athlete recruiting.  Probing a bit further, it is learned that an admission counselor was kept busy serving the coach and was unable to address a non-athlete list of inquiries sufficiently.  One institution added a sport while showing a 40% decline in non-athlete recruiting that year.  Make sure that thin resources, staffed by counselors of low experience are not spread too thin by the initiative.

Second is the impact on the campus atmosphere.  If your college exceeds an athlete threshold of 30%, does it make sense to add another sport?  Non-athletic students can sense an over-abundance of athletes when visiting classes, eating at the dining commons or visiting the dorms.  There is a tipping point and I have yet to quantify it but 30% does seem like a reasonable limit to the population of athletes before becoming an institution that drives others away.

Third is failing to acknowledge a natural decline elsewhere.  I’m not suggesting that you ignore replacing the non-athletes that are on a decline but replacements will be more costly.  Too often, institutions believe that their decline in non-athletes is over and that the new sport will make next year’s incoming class bigger.  From what I am seeing, that is not a given. In other words, you could be successful and still have fewer students.  Don’t foreclose that possibility.

Finally, I suggest you put a limit on how much the institution spends of its limited resources on athletics.  An approach I have seen at a number of institutions is to identify the net contribution from auxiliaries and subtract the costs of Student Life (or Student Development) and Athletics from that amount.  So, presume that you bring in $4.0 million in room and board, with costs consuming $2.5 million of that.  The remaining $1.5 million is then apportioned to Student Life ($500,000), athletics ($700,000) and a 5% remainder to the institution ($200,000).  Most of the institutions I work with are able to keep their costs within these parameters.  The benefits of this approach are to. 1. avoid using declining net tuition dollars to subsidize athletics and. 2. establish a lid on how much is spent for athletics. 

Athletics are an important part of the college experience. By establishing reasonable expectations and spending with discipline, a healthy balance can be achieved.