College sports in the U.S are big business. In 2013, the University of Texas, which has the top-earning American athletics department, earned an astounding $165,691,486 in revenue. It is not alone in its prosperity. In fact, 13 university sports programs made over $100 million in 2013. The salaries of the coaches of big-ticket college football teams reflect the money flooding these programs, with former Texas Longhorns coach Mack Brown’s 2013 compensation of $5,453,750 only good enough to get him the number two spot on the list of highest paid coaches, falling just short of Alabama coach Nick Saban’s $5,545,852. According to Deadspin, a football coach is the highest-paid public employee in 27 U.S. states. In an additional 13 states, the highest-paid is a college basketball coach.
While some may argue that these very high salaries are commensurate with the amount of money college sports bring in, data from ESPN reveals that even at schools like Texas and Alabama, which generate millions of dollars of revenue, most, if not all of the money generated, ends up being cycled back into the football program, giving the universities themselves little to no financial benefit. In fact, especially when one accounts for the student fees and university subsidies paid to the teams at many schools, even high-revenue teams end up losing money for their universities. For example, the second-highest-earning athletics department, Wisconsin, would have operated at a loss of well over $1 million dollars had the school not given them a subsidy of approximately $7 million, despite earning close to $150 million in revenue. Wisconsin pays its coaching staff over $15 million.
With the amount of cash that big American athletics programs bring in from media deals, ticket sales, and merchandising, it is inexcusable for any of them to rely on funds from universities to break even. Given that states all across America are cutting funding to public education, leading to tuition increases and budget cuts at state universities, the big-name athletics departments should start sharing their wealth with the schools they represent. One easy way for them to generate a surplus to give back to their universities would be to cut coaches’ pay to be more proportional with that of other public sector workers. Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, earns an annual salary of $133,000, which is less than 5 per cent of the University of Texas football coach’s earnings, Alabama’s governor has pledged to not take a salary until his state’s unemployment rate goes down to 5.2 per cent.
Some might argue that the fierce competition to bring in the best coaching talent necessitates the high salaries, but that argument doesn’t really hold water upon closer examination. After all, many talented people wish to be governors of states, despite the relatively low compensation, because of the power and prestige of the office. If university athletics departments agreed on a salary cap for coaches, they would not suddenly have a hard time finding high-quality applicants. Division 1 football and basketball coaches are some of the most revered and powerful figures in sports, and droves of people would be happy to do the job for free. After looking at the listings of public employee salaries in Ontario and British Columbia, the football coaches at Canadian universities with big athletics programs are paid in the $100,000 to $200,000 range, and Canadian universities seem to have no trouble filling their coaching positions with high quality talent. Does $5 million get you 25 times the coach that $200,000 does?
Much like hosting an Olympics or a World Cup, having a nationally-ranked athletics department seems to provide little benefit other than prestige and publicity. Ultimately, the amount of money paid to coaches, and the amount in American college sports in general, is troubling because it seems to go against the purpose of universities. Universities are supposed to be “institutes of higher learning,” and the focus in many big public universities on athletics over academics robs students of a higher quality education. While being a football bowl contender or a basketball powerhouse may be exciting in the moment, one wonders if the students of big sports universities will look back at their time in school and wish they had a cheaper, better education instead of a trophy sitting in some case.