Universities cash in on the bowl season

Letter From Denver, Colorado
Click to follow

The images arrive through the cathode ray tubes like so many distant postcards: sunshine, blue skies, green grass, palm trees, sunsets.

The images arrive through the cathode ray tubes like so many distant postcards: sunshine, blue skies, green grass, palm trees, sunsets.

In the remaining, snap-frozen two-thirds of the United States, sports fans of all ages push aside the left-over Christmas ham and turkey, feign amnesia to all those New Year's resolutions and watch some football... and watch, and watch, and watch.

On New Year's Day, someone with absolutely no other life to speak of, or an especially crippling hangover, could have watched football from 9am (Mountain Standard Time) to 9.30pm or so, channel hopping between four different games for the first four hours.

It was the college football "bowl" season, an annual confluence of sports, tourism and money, spiced with a little misbehaviour. On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the gentlemen from the universities of Miami and Florida went at it, in the days before their meeting in the Sugar Bowl on 2 January.

The colleges are institutions of tertiary education, or universities. This is the second-last time you will read a reference to "education" in this article. Notwithstanding the admirable sporting and research reputations of universities like Stanford, home of five Nobel prize winners in the past five years, the colleges largely serve as both factory farms for the NFL or the NBA, and their football teams as cash cows where everyone makes money except the players.

There are 130 colleges in the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Division One. The annual budgets of their athletic departments range from $18m (£25m) to $40m. The highest single cost in these budgets is the salary of the head football coach. There are now 16 of them making at least $1m per season. The highest paid, Steve Spurrier of the University of Florida, has a four-year deal which averages $2.1m a year.

The college football season spans 11 games, from early September to late November. For the best of the teams, there is a 12th game, the "bowl" fixture, with a pay-out to each participating team which varies from $750,000 for the more obscure games, such as the "Aloha" bowl in Honolulu on Christmas Day, to that which decided the national champions, the Orange Bowl in Miami on 3 January, for which the the University of Oklahoma and Florida State University each received $13.5m.

The 25 bowl games were played in locations both familiar (Los Angeles, venue of the Rose Bowl) and obscure, (Shreveport, Louisiana, population 198,000, hosting the Independence Bowl). They are a form of semi-escape for the rest of the snow and ice-bound country.

The staggering overall cost of these events (combined team payouts of $162m) is met by ticket and merchandising sales, the sale of broadcasting and naming rights (how else to explain the transformation of the Hall of Fame Bowl to the Galleryfurniture.com Bowl), tourism authorities, and, of course, the humble taxpayer. In San Antonio, Texas, the venue for the Alamo Bowl, there was a sports-related surcharge of 17 per cent on car rentals and hotel room charges.

For the teams, the parents of the players, the band members, the boosters and sundry others, a bowl game is a lucrative reward for services rendered during the year, part end-of-season trip, part mass-migration.

For their universities, the very existence and success of their football teams is a bill that falls due as surely as a headache signals the real start of New Year's Day.

According to a study for the NCAA, by Daniel Fulks of Transylvania University, Kentucky, 74 of the 130 Division One schools reported average profits of $3.8m in 1999. The remainder reported an average loss of $3.3m.

Beyond that are the predictions of doomsayers like Murray Sperber, an English teacher at the University of Indiana. In a book examining this subject, Sperber argues that the universities not only use sports such as basketball and football to attract new enrolments (which some of the schools themselves have admitted), but also to distract these students from the fundamental role of the institutions, which is to provide a full tertiary education. Last, but not least, are the athletes themselves, who are on scholarships worth an average value of $25-30,000 a year. Though stories of academic fraud and under-the-table payments abound, they are supposed to be strictly amateur, the unpaid stars of a show that will generate hundreds of millions of dollars over a two-week period.

Their pay-off can be measured only in terms of achievement. Consider the case of Torrance Marshall, a linebacker with the University of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma, known as the Sooners, defeated Florida State University in the Orange Bowl last Wednesday to be crowned national champions. To Marshall, as the game's most valuable player, fell the honour of hoisting aloft the trophy for the game's best player in the season's biggest contest.

Smiling broadly, Marshall did so. A silver tureen, laden with oranges, was thrust towards the spitting Miami sky. What money could buy a moment like that?