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Conor Sen column: Colleges bet on football in their own K-shaped recovery

Conor Sen column: Colleges bet on football in their own K-shaped recovery

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CFP Sugar Bowl Football

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence passed against Ohio State during the first half of the Sugar Bowl NCAA college football game in New Orleans on Friday.

By Conor Sen

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a lot of long-term trends affecting institutions of all kinds. Higher education is no exception. From moving classrooms online to shrinking enrollment and budget cuts, there’s more uncertainty than ever surrounding the future of colleges and universities.

As schools struggled with these unprecedented challenges, 2020 gave us a glimpse into what is truly considered truly essential in higher education: Football. With the College Football Playoff, we’re seeing how many of America’s pre-eminent centers of learning have treated their programs as hallowed ground, with their teams’ status arguably heightened during this tumultuous season.

Even in the best of times, the vast majority of U.S. universities know they never can hope to have the academic standing of a Harvard or a Stanford, but they can dream the next best thing — having a football team like Alabama’s or Clemson’s.

Success in college football isn’t just about bragging rights. It’s about money, visibility and attracting talent to all departments on campus. The Southeastern Conference, home to the University of Alabama, recently signed a television rights deal with Disney’s ESPN that will pay the conference $300 million per season, more than five times the conference’s current $55 million per season deal with CBS.

When factoring in all revenue sources, the top college football programs now are bringing in more than $100 million a year per school, more than double the annual revenue of an average Major League Soccer team and close to an average National Hockey League team.

Add to that the impact on a college town’s local economy, as tens of thousands of alumni and fans swarm to town for game day. Those Saturdays in the fall mean hotel stays, restaurant and bar spending, jobs for workers and tax dollars for local governments.

Higher visibility from sustained college football success can be a key component of a school’s long-term growth plan. The University of Alabama’s multiple national championships over the past several years has allowed it to recruit students from all over the country to raise its academic profile.

The same goes for Clemson University in South Carolina, where applications to the school increased by 86% between 2008 and 2018 as its team made the national finals in four of the past six years, clinching the title twice.

Aspirations extend beyond the name-brand schools. Liberty University, known best for its ties to evangelical leaders Jerry Falwell Sr. and Jerry Falwell Jr, grew its endowment to more than $1 billion by expanding its online-class business.

It’s used the money to build up its football program in hopes of becoming to evangelicals what the University of Notre Dame is to Catholics. The school recently completed its most successful football season ever under Coach Hugh Freeze, whom it lured away from major conference schools with a multimillion-dollar contract.

This is an uncomfortable development for proponents of the educational mission. Incentives drive behavior, and if it’s football that universities are dependent upon for their success, then football increasingly will call the shots.

Whether they would admit it or not, universities pushed to reopen their campuses this summer with the college football season in mind. Two of the major athletic conferences, the Midwestern-centric Big Ten, and the Pac-12, initially decided not to play the football season, only to reverse their position as other conferences decided to move forward, perhaps out of fear of being left behind.

Even at schools with successful football teams, nonfootball budget cuts still are happening. Despite the additional revenue generated by its program, Clemson decided in November to cut its men’s track-and-field and cross-country teams.

And the University of Alabama athletics department cut its operating budget this past year, in part because of the lost revenue from reduced football attendance this season.

What comes next for higher education might be the same sort of K-shaped recovery that the rest of the economy has gone through this year. The top 25 universities in the country with national or global profiles and multibillion-dollar endowments will find themselves continuing to be the preferred landing destinations for top students and faculty.

Another tier of universities will find themselves in an ever-escalating arms race for the kind of success in college football that can power a university and a local economy. And for too many others, it will be a downward spiral of lower revenues, budget cuts, enrollment declines and, ultimately, closed doors.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. © 2021, Tribune Content Agency

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