Several commentators have discussed whether or not university athletic teams could survive without subsidies from the administration. While not all athletic programs receive revenue from student fees (for instance, the large athletic program at my alma mater is entirely self-sufficient), there is evidence that suggests that many of these teams could financially survive in an independent semi-pro league.
Right now both the NFL and NBA financially benefit from the university-subsidized farm system. For instance, European football (soccer) franchises begin building and recruiting both teams and players at an early stage — and are largely financed privately by the franchise sponsors.
Not only are many of the highlighted teams fan favorites and successful (win/lose), but enormously profitable. For instance, in basketball the UNC Tar Heels reported a $16.9 million profit this past year. NC State, with the lowest operating expenses, earned $7.9 million in profits. These large margins are swollen largely through sponsorship contracts and merchandising agreements.
Similarly, there are 10 football teams that earned at least $45 million last year. And again, in addition to luxury boxes, the revenues typically come from sponsorship and merchandising deals.
One thing that is left unmentioned in either Forbes overview is that student-athletes at these large programs are typically allocated more financial resources, training equipment (e.g., personal assistants, exclusive gyms) and academic aid (e.g., personal tutors) than the rest of the student body. In addition, many student-athletes would not have been admitted based solely on their academic credentials (the NCAA has a sliding scale [pdf]) and some of their customized courses are at times, suspect.
If these sport teams are capable of raking in large quantities of cash, what are some reasons to justify this seemingly inequitable model — especially when many are financed by student fees and/or taxpayers?
Also, while a low percentage of college athletes ever become professional athletes, why not just cut the “scholar” rhetoric and slice the umbilical cord? After all, a case could be made that the combination of lower academic standards and abundant resources arguably creates a two-tiered student caste system at the expense of those involuntarily financing it.