NDSU Athletics Is Not a Business

North Dakota State takes the field for the NCAA Division I FCS championship game at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019. David Samson / The Forum

Collegiate athletics are an enormous distraction from the core academic mission of America’s universities.

At a time when the affordability of getting a higher education degree is a major problem for millions upon millions of Americans, athletic programs make the cost of operating public universities more expensive for taxpayers and the cost of attending more expensive for students.

As a case in point, consider this Fargo Forum article from reporter Jeff Kolpack which was published over the weekend. The headline is, “Bison Inc.: At NDSU, a growing athletic department makes the budget work on a yearly basis.”

The “Inc” part of the headline makes it seem like North Dakota State University athletics are operated like a business – in fact, the graphics in the article were branded with the phrase “the business of NDSU athletics” – but they’re really not. While the athletic department may find a way to make ends meet every month, they balance their budget on the backs of taxpayers and students.

Without heavy subsidies from those sources the “business” of NDSU athletics would fold very quickly.

But don’t take my word of it. Kolpack’s numbers, provided by NDSU, bear this out:

Subsidies from student fees and the university itself add up to more than $7.7 million of NDSU’s total $24.7 million in athletic revenues. That’s nearly one third, or just over 31.3 percent, of the total athletic budget.

To be fair, NDSU has actually been improving on this front in recent years. The percentage of athletic revenues made up by student/taxpayer subsidies has declined precipitously from previous years, no doubt a product of the school’s wildly successful football team (data from USA Today’s database of collegiate athletic revenues reported to the NCAA, click for a larger view):

In terms of actual dollars, the roughly $7.7 million in taxpayer/student subsidies budgeted for 2019 would be the lowest amount the school has taken from those sources since 2012.

That is improvement! Still, when financing a higher education is such a struggle, can any school justify subsidizing athletic programs with millions upon millions of student and taxpayer dollars?

I realize that I’m probably shouting at clouds on this topic. North Dakotans love Bison athletics, particularly football. Earlier this year, amid a budget fight, state lawmakers thought there might not be enough public interest to raise $3.2 million to replace a chemistry lab building on the NDSU campus which has had problems with running water and catching on fire. As that debate was going on, the NDSU athletics department was kicking off a $37.2 million fundraising campaign for a new practice facility for the football players.

That’s where the public’s priorities lay. Not with science but with football.

Academic programs take a back seat to sports in America. That’s not how it should be, but that’s how it is.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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