Athletics Arms Race

In January, Nick Saban signed an eight-year $32 million contract with the University of Alabama to become its next football coach, making him the highest-paid college coach in the nation.

The signing sent shockwaves across the college athletics landscape. Not only had Alabama signed a premier coach who had led Louisiana State University, a SEC rival, to a share of the national title in 2004, but it sparked criticisms – and fear – that Saban’s hiring would elevate the salaries of already highly-paid coaches to even higher levels. The fear was that it would place severe financial strains on the universities and their athletic departments.

While such concerns are justified, as nearly all Division I-A coaches make more than $1 million annually, there are other reasons to be concerned about the arms race in college athletics. It’s not just the exuberant salaries that are out of control, but also spending on renovations to stadiums and other athletics arenas – in order to appease coaches, fans, recruits, and athletic donors.

Last week, during the ACC college football media preview, new UNC-Chapel Hill coach Butch Davis leaked word to the press about plans for a $100 million expansion of Kenan Stadium. According to News 14 Carolina, the plan, although still in its early stages, would include completing the stadium’s bowl in the east end zone, constructing luxury skyboxes, and completing an academic support center for the athletes.

“I think that it’s extraordinarily important to the success of our program to expand Kenan Stadium,” Davis told the media.

Coaches believe that adding the amenities will increase a program’s chances of recruiting “blue chip” athletes to play for their institutions. Administrators jump at the chance to provide luxurious accommodations to well-connected donors and other officials. And alumni and fans love to thump their chest at what their stadium offers compared to other schools in their conference.

Here are some other expansion projects under consideration, in progress, or recently completed across North Carolina and the nation:

• Boshamer Stadium, home to the UNC-Chapel Hill baseball team, will be closed for the 2008 season, as a $14 to $16 million project is underway to renovate the stadium. Plans include 4,000 chair-back seats, a stadium courtyard, larger dugouts, and six club-level suites that would transform Boshamer Stadium from a college baseball park to a stadium on par with most Triple A fields.
• Everything is bigger in Texas, and prior to the 2006 season the University of Texas unveiled what it called “Godzillatron,” an $8 million, 7,370-square foot HD videoboard.
• In May 2006, the University of Michigan Board of Regents, by a 5-3 vote, approved a $226 million renovation to Michigan Stadium, a.k.a. “The Big House.” The renovation calls for 83 indoor suites and 3,200 outdoor club seats, which would increase the stadium’s capacity to 108,251. Two new structures will offer bench seats, media facilities, restrooms, and concessions.
• West Virginia University officials are embarking on a $6.2 million renovation to football facilities that were required as part of a renegotiated contract with Rich Rodriguez. Rodriguez had turned down a $12 million offer to coach at Alabama to remain at West Virginia.

Taken at face value, none of these projects appear to address major structural issues with the respective stadiums. Instead, they only add luxury to already expansive stadium complexes under the guise of competing for recruits and improving the status of a program among peers and perspective students.

Contrary to what some may believe, athletic competition is not the sole purpose of an institution. Massive spending on these renovation plans sends a mixed signal from university leaders that athletics are their top priority, not providing resources to educate students, many of whom are continually graduating unprepared for the business world.

None of these luxurious additions will lead to the Tar Heel football program being successful in the years to come. That will come only in on-the-field production and recruiting of student-athletes who are more interested in playing time and scholarships than they are about how many luxury boxes Kenan Stadium holds.

College presidents must show stronger leadership in limiting the construction whims of alumni, coaches and average fans. This means placing the school’s education mission above the whims of athletics.

Granted, once a stadium or arena is constructed college officials have a responsibility to maintain the stadiums and arenas to comply with safety and building codes. Luxury boxes, Godziallatrons, and athlete-only academic centers do not meet that requirement and never will and college officials should limit or better yet end their construction.