Sports are total waste of money

Apr 6th, 2009 | By | Category: Columns, Opinions, Sports Commentary

Nate Bassett


In one of my recent classes, a professor was relating a story from when he went to Missouri State. He said how in the beginning of the fall semester, his fraternity decided to show some school spirit by getting permission to light a bonfire between the old McDonald Hall Arena and what was then Briggs Stadium (now the Plaster Sports Complex). What a waste of money!!!

The reason for this was the football team; they hadn’t managed a win yet and the frat pledged to keep a cauldron boiling in that space until they scored a win. By the time winter break rolled around, there was ice and snow all around the cauldron, and the frat gave up to a season of utter failure.

Now, some people love sports. I’ll be honest and say it’s not exactly my thing. When people get riled up and really enthusiastic about their favorite teams, it’s probably a harmless way to occupy their time. But when it comes to school spirit, academia and a question of where we spend our money, there has to be an examination of the facts.

Colleges often invest heavily in a sports program to raise the prestige of the school and attract students and sales of both tickets and merchandise. It’s an investment in the lives of those involved and the future of the program, with returns of success, increased enrollment and profits. When those returns don’t materialize, we have to consider the other opportunities that exist by investing in quality programs and other methods that promote student success.

It’s no small secret that the MSU football team has not been very successful recently; 4-7 this year, 6-5 last year and 2-8 the year before that. The men’s basketball team has done a little better, going 11-20 this year, 17-16 last year and 22-11 the year before that. The woman’s basketball team loses about 2 games for every one they win.

Now, big deal, right? Why am I trashing on these teams? Because of the inordinate amount of spending and money that goes into these things. According to a Cornell study, “indirect benefits to colleges from successful athletic programs are very small”. Colleges that win championships have a three year spike in donations and applications. Another study by the NCAA itself says spending on athletics is a poor investment, with few financial returns. A few schools are very successful, and the rest aren’t, but want to be, so there’s a positional arms race, with different colleges trying to outspend each other, thinking that a few more bucks will make players perform better. There’s a notion that a coach will emerge who can make everything better, and he deserves whatever we can pay him.

However, most successful sports teams are dynasties. People perceive random fluctuations in the performance of any system to be patterns and find significance where there is none. This is why we try to recruit and hire the best, to build a dynasty of our own, and until it gets done right, or clicks, there’s a lot of random performance. Back to the subject of money, lets take the Plaster Sports Complex (and ignore the much more powerful and costly example of the JQH Arena).

It was originally a construction of the Works Progress Administration, part of FDR’s means of employing the unemployed. It cost $60,000, a costly sum for the day. Its last major renovation was in 1992, which made it the PSC that it is today. In 2006, they finished installing Field Turf synthetic grass for $1 million. Last summer a Jumbotron system was installed at a cost of $2 million.

Noam Chomsky says “Sports… offer people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And… it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in discussions of sports as opposed to political and social issues.”

If Missouri State is expecting a return on the investments they’ve made in sports, they’ve found themselves duped. Someone told me we threw away 1.3 million dollars last year on football (besides the jumbotron, I assume) Instead of continuing a costly “arms race” of sports spending on unrewarding ventures, why not decide to build an educational department that can stand out in the state and the nation?

It seems unfair to waste tuition and alumni money on projects that don’t give us our money back, when we could have said, “Let’s have the best political science/biology/theater/whatever department in the state”. As far as I know, MSU has nothing worth bragging about like SLU’s nursing program or Mizzou’s Journalism school. And that’s because we’ve kept focusing our attention on something that Dr. Chomsky would call “training in irrational jingoism.” We can read that as “defending bad ideas against all odds.” That’s certainly the motto of resource-sucking institutions like organized sports.

Today, we’re keeping that bonfire burning, same as it was decades ago. This time, we’re just throwing our tuition money on it.

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  1. There is more to the value of college sports than just financial profit. It’s funny how simular minded writers also complain about schools like Ohio State and Florida who do turn a profit. Writers often write about how these schools abuse their athletes and that college athletics are too much of a business. This time this writer bashes athletics because it doesn’t turn a profit; like over 90% of college athletic programs. I guess MSU could be groundbreaking and try to be the first major college without an athletic program? That will never happen and even at Cornell, who provided your study, there is an athletic program that also loses money. So there must be something those Ivy Leaguers understand about the value of sports that keeps them spending money on sports.

    In my opinion there are a lot of reasons to have an athletic program at any university and turning a profit or increasing admissions is the least of them.

    The first is still education. I strongly believe that the most important lessons we learn at college happen outside of classrooms like Dr. Chomsky’s. I know it’s cliche but athletes learn and gain lessons in teamwork, character, committment, etc… Those are valuable skills that make these STUDENTS more competitive in the work place. I also still think physical education / training should be an important part of school. Athlete or not those with healthy bodies are usually capable of doing more with thier minds.

    I don’t dispute that athletes could gain of lot of those same lessons through other extra curricular activities but sports is what they love. They should get to use their talents in extracurricular activities just like writers for the school newspaper, actors in a school play, band members and students in how ever many hundreds of student organizations we have on campus. I don’t understand how acting or playing a musical intrument is any more academic than running off a play in basketball. All take intelligence, talent, coordination and coaching. All of them are a performance. None of them involve filling in bubbles on a scantron worksheet.

    I think we have about 250 student organizations on campus. How many of them turn a profit? I doubt many do but I bet all of them take up student fees and alumni donations. I do admit athletics spends a lot of money. However, they also gain the most publicity for the university. They also give students and alumni something to take pride in and athletics give those groups a way to connect with the university and eachother. I’m not saying athletics are fundamentally more important than any other activity. However, I will say they have more value in community and alumni relations.

    The difference between the average sports fan and the average theater fan is mostly just one wears a tie and the other wears a hat. Just because you are not passionate about something doesn’t mean that it has no place on our campus. I’d venture to say that MSU sports are the activity that the the most students share a passion for. Several thousand students may be at a game but we’ll never see that kind of numbers at any other event. I say that just to show that while all students may not be passionate about sports they ones that are passionate about them do come in larger numbers than any other activity on campus. Sports spending is not just to benefit the 300 or 400 actual athletes who are on the field or court.

    I don’t get too uptite about this kind of article. I know that articles like yours don’t get written very often when teams are winning. Right now MSU is transitioning in it’s most high profile sports. I doubt we saw too many articles like this when MSU made the playoffs in football years ago, was in the sweet 16 in men’s bball, the final four in women’s bbal, the college world series in baseball or any other time we experienced big highlights. I also wonder if you’ll feel the same way when those good times come again in the future.

    PS: The athletes at MSU have a higher graduation rate and average GPA than the general student body.

  2. I just want to say I appreciate the well written and thoughtful response. Yours is the prevailing view, and though we may disagree on aspects of it, I’m glad you took the time to draft those thoughts.