Monday, September 20, 2010

MAC vs. Big 10

By: Matthew Denhart

Early in the college football season, it is common for teams to play non-conference games. This past weekend featured four games that pitted Mid-American Conference (MAC) schools against counterparts in the Big 10 Conference.

The Big 10 teams swept these contests. Ohio State University defeated Ohio University 43-7, Penn State blanked Kent State 24-0, Purdue topped Ball State 24-13 and Illinois squeaked out a victory over Northern Illinois 28-22.

This domination is largely to be expected. After all, the Big 10 schools have athletic budgets that are as much as five times larger than those at MAC schools. However, the ironic part is that the students and schools at MAC institutions actually pay a much heftier fee to subsidize their intercollegiate athletics (ICA) departments than do those in the Big 10 (see this CCAP report). Since the Big 10 teams regularly dominate their MAC opponents, in essence students at MAC schools are paying more and getting less (in terms of wins).

How is this possible? The simple answer is that the demand for MAC sports is too low for these athletic departments to generate revenues great enough to offset their expenses. Yet, rather than down-scaling their operations, they simply rely on subsidies to pick up the bill.

On average in 2008, ICA departments at MAC schools were subsidized to the tune of nearly $15.7 million, while Big 10 schools only required an average of $2.7 million in outside funds to balance their budgets. The figures below represent the ICA subsidies for seven of the eight institutions mentioned above (Penn State does not report to USA Today's database):

Ohio University: $15.05 million
Ohio State University: $0.00

Ball State University: $15.14 million
Purdue University: $0.00

Northern Illinois University: $15.15 million
University of Illinois: $4.51 million

Kent State University: $13.60 million
Penn State University: N/A (does not report to database)

As you can see, two of the four Big 10 schools have a subsidy equal to zero. Yet, all MAC schools require substantial subsidies. These monies come from student fees, government support, and the wider institution's budget and thus act as a tax on resources that could have been used in other ways to promote student learning. This tax is highly regressive since it falls much more heavily on poorer schools. In 2009, MAC schools had an average endowment of $159 million while Big-10 schools (even excluding the private Northwestern University) had an average endowment more than 11 times larger at almost $1.8 billion.

Such large subsidization of ICA is madness. Given the regressive nature in which it falls on different institutions, schools in the major conferences are very unlikely to ever pursue reforms. Thus, it is up to the institutions in conferences like the MAC to lead the way to reform through conference-wide agreements to curb athletic expenditures and end the futile arms race.

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