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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Rona Donahoe is a professor of geochemistry at the University of Alabama. She is working on a project in the oldest oil field in the state, which involves CO2 injections that stimulate the production of oil by reducing viscosity and the surface tension between the oil and reservoir rock at depths of 10,000 to 12,000 feet.
It is a less intrusive process than hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which uses high water pressure and chemicals and can result in contamination of water supplies or leave unstable rock formations. Donahoe’s original research grant was $300,000, which she split with another professor. That money runs out in January. Funding sources for such work have been drying up on campuses in recent years because of federal sequestration and other financial issues plaguing higher education.
Yet there is one source of cash on her campus, and many others, with the spigot wide open: college football.
The new College Football Playoff starts next season, and it is a honeypot for the industrialized collegiate game. It could also mean new revenue for research on college campuses, like Donahoe’s, but it is unclear whether that will pan out.
The commissioners of the 10 conferences that play Division I football have signed television contracts that will push the value of the college football postseason to $5.5 billion over 12 years, with the five major conferences — the SEC, Big 12, ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 — expected to receive the bulk of TV revenue.
Starting in 2014-15, the postseason will consist of bowl games and the new lucrative playoff — two national semifinal games and a national championship game. The major conferences will be paid by TV broadcasters and will then cut checks to their member schools.
According to USA Today, there is even more money to be had on top of the $5.5 billion. The Rose, Sugar and Orange bowls will spread an additional $187.5 million among the five power conferences.
How many zeros will be on these checks written to member schools? No one is quite sure, because the conferences are closely guarding the details of the contract.
The SEC, which paid its 14 member schools $20.7 million each in August, could have another $12 million to $15 million to give them because of the new format. And the SEC will start its own TV network in 2014, which could mean a further $1 million for each of its schools.
This means the 14 SEC schools could each be receiving $35 million or more from the conference by 2015, on top of the revenue they generate themselves with licensing, concessions and ticket sales.
So what if Donahoe were to get, say, $100,000 for her project from the TV money?
“It would be a game changer,” she said, adding that the relatively paltry sum “would mean two more years of work.”
Donahoe adores Crimson Tide football. She goes to every home game and cheers loudly for her school’s team. She shows no outward resentment of the riches of the athletics department, which just completed a renovation of the weight room and locker rooms for $9 million. The Crimson Tide has won three of the last four national championships, and the football complex is palatial compared with the 30-year-old building that houses Donahoe’s office.
And while classrooms on many campuses age, athletic facilities shine with newness, and coaches’ salaries keep rising. They are up 90 percent since 2006, according to a USA Today database on coaches’ salaries.
University of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan — who also serves as a co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a watchdog group — said the caretakers of the College Playoff Committee have agreed to reserve 8 percent of the revenue from the two new national semifinal games to award schools whose teams meet certain academic benchmarks.
“We made the proposal that this new revenue should go to support academics, and what the conferences agreed to is a pittance,” Kirwan said, noting that there is supposed to be $500 million in additional annual revenue from the deal. “We wanted all the new revenue from the playoff, which is on top of the existing contracts, to go back to academics.”
The conference commissioners who negotiated the TV deals and are likely adding to their considerable salaries are not talking about the contracts.
A spokesman for Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson said he could not discuss the terms of the contract, per a confidentiality agreement. Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida, did not respond to requests for comment. John Swofford, commissioner of the ACC, also did not respond to a request for comment.
When professors and researchers at universities are awarded grants, they must pay overhead to the school for using office space and utilities in conjunction with their work. Donahoe said 47 percent of her grant money went to overhead.
Should football programs pay overhead?
Alabama’s athletic department gave $6.8 million back to the school’s academic side for 2011-12, according to a university spokesperson. Len Elmore, an attorney, a basketball analyst and a member of the Knight Commission, scoffed at that number.
“What did Alabama generate in revenue with football — $60 million, $70 million, $80 million?” he asked. “So they gave back less than 10 percent?”
Elmore said presidents have to take charge of revenue and distribution on campus. That is not an easy thing to do when football is so culturally strong and when powerful politicians are fans of the game and friends of the head coach. He suggests a simple formula for revenue.
“Whatever percentage the athletic department budget is of the overall university budget,” he said, “that’s a percentage of that money they should get.”
Kirwan said he knows presidents of universities who feel they do not have enough power to take on football and grab a larger share of money for the schools’ real mission.
Breaking down costs
A new tool released by the Knight Commission on Wednesday compares the amount of money spent on football players with spending on the typical student, school by school. The differences are staggering, especially among schools with Division I football programs.
For instance, according to 2011 data, the average spending at the 12 SEC schools per student was $13,229, while the average amount spent per SEC scholarship or nonscholarship football player was $180,626, taking into account total football operating expenses and the cost of the athletic scholarship.
There are 70 Division I coaches making more than $1 million per year, according to the USA Today database. Commissioners of major conferences are multimillionaire businessmen, and they continue to add staff to their operations and build new offices with money generated by football.
Meanwhile, state and local support of students continues to drop.
“There is an incredible contradiction about what we say our institutions are supposed to have as priorities and what we are actually doing,” said Kirwan. “People should be embarrassed where we have reached in trying to feed this insatiable beast called intercollegiate athletics. Spending in athletics in Division I is growing at twice the rate as spending on academics.”
Sortable table: Spending on students vs. student-athletes
Al Jazeera America
Academic spending per FTE student
Athletic spending per athlete
Institutional funding for athletics per athlete
Football spending per scholarship football player
Academic spending per FTE student: Full cost of education per full-time equivalent student. Includes only direct and indirect costs related to educating students; spending related to other university activities or services is excluded.
Athletic spending per athlete: Total athletic operating expenses, including scholarship costs, per unduplicated athlete.
Institutional funding for athletics per athlete: Funding allocated to athletics from the institution's general fund, state or other government support, student fees or indirect facilities and administrative support, calculated per unduplicated athlete.
Football spending per scholarship football player: Total football operating expenses, including the cost of scholarships per scholarship football player.
Source: Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics (data from 2011, most recent available year)