Business Columns & Blogs

Bill Virgin: It’s not so far-fetched to see future of collegiate sports as a business entity

The first intercollegiate basketball game was played in 1896 or thereabouts — shockingly, research numbering into the minutes reveals multiple claims to the first ever, and how could a fact on the Internet ever be in dispute?

The first intercollegiate football game, it’s more widely agreed, took place in 1869, although even that is subject to some debate given that the Rutgers-Princeton tilt of that year had limited resemblance to the modern version.

But in these media-saturated, data-intense times in which nothing goes unobserved or undocumented, we may know down to the nanosecond when the last intercollegiate football and basketball games were played, at least in the form that we know them and at least at the major-college level.

At the rate things are going, that moment could come as soon as the end of next season.

Hyperbole? Only a tad. The recent declaration by a National Labor Relations Board regional director that football players at Northwestern University devote so much time to the sport that they are in effect employees, and thus have the right to join a union and form a collective-bargaining unit, is only a piece of a broader trend in which the size, role, value, cost and purpose of intercollegiate athletics are under intense scrutiny.

Defenders of the game have careened between dismissals of the Northwestern ruling as being of limited breadth and applicability — it involves a private school, it won’t hold up on appeal — and predictions of cataclysmic change for collegiate athletics.

The smart money says to lean toward the second forecast. Because it is about money, lots of it, in two “industries” that Americans now regard as big businesses.

We long ago shed quaint notions about sports as mere physical competitions staged for the enjoyment of participant and spectator. With player salaries, television contracts, franchise values and stadium deals measured in the millions and billions of dollars, sports may be entertaining, but it is decidedly an entertainment business, emphasis on that second word.

But we accept that on the professional level. Now we’re having to publicly acknowledge the same trends — and outsized sums of money — at the collegiate level, and that collides with whatever quaint illusions we might still harbor about college sports.

We’re not the only ones with a bit of cognitive dissonance to resolve. University presidents, who spend the bulk of their time chasing money, are all too aware that higher education is a big business, with college sports a major line-item in the budgets of those businesses.

The problem is, what is that line-item buying? Are college athletics a vehicle for “the holistic development of students” and a way to “educate and promote personal growth and physical well-being,” as the mission statement of Pacific Lutheran University’s athletic department puts it?

Or are they another form of marketing and advertising, a way to connect with prospective students (and their tuition-paying parents) and alumni (and their post-graduation wallets)?

For most colleges and most sports, even at the huge universities that offer athletic scholarships (at the NCAA Division III level at which PLU competes, athletic scholarships aren’t permitted), it’s mostly the former. The University of Washington has an internationally competitive crew program, but there are no multibillion-dollar TV deals in the sport for which networks are bidding, and few prospects for a professional career as a rower.

For a select tier of schools in thin slice of sports, definitely including the UW and college football, it’s the latter. Not that smaller schools don’t try playing at that level as well, as reflected in the number of programs trying to move up the NCAA ladder. Seattle University’s decision to move into Division I was likely inspired by what Gonzaga had done to raise its profile through success in men’s basketball.

The challenge is rationalizing the cost of maintaining elaborate sports programs in an era of tight budgets, which will be made even tighter if athletes in the revenue sports demand (and get) a share of the money. Then there’s the challenge of balancing whatever remains of the noble purpose of college athletics vs. the sense that colleges are merely running finishing schools and quasi-minor leagues for the NFL and NBA. Would we ever see a big school going the other direction, cutting the size or competition level of its sports programs? It rarely happened in the old era of college sports, but that was then.

It won’t be just the big schools wrestling with these questions. The community colleges, which in this state are taking on even more students and programs for career preparation, may ask themselves (or be asked) what being in the expensive business of intercollegiate athletics accomplishes that couldn’t be done with a good and less costly intramural and recreational-sports program.

“Money is just a way of keeping score,” oil man H.L. Hunt once said. In the student-athlete industrial complex, the money score is just as important as the competitive score. For the moment, no one, not student-athletes, not college administrators, not fans and taxpayers, are happy with what they’re seeing on the scoreboard. Change is coming, but in business as in athletics, the outcome is uncertain. That’s why they play the game.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at