The Long Bomb

There is among football boosters and delusional sportswriters a sense that the Gophers can somehow build themselves into a football powerhouse, that a new stadium, or a new weight room, or a new coach will somehow erase the immense disadvantages under which this program operates. With discussion of a new stadium comes all sorts of hopeful calculations of parking revenue and concessions and signage cash. There’s talk of rebuilding student interest in the team and visions of sold-out games on crisp autumn afternoons. Championships will surely follow. Maturi can’t help encouraging this line of thinking; he’d love to see a new stadium built on campus. But he freely admits that winning is not connected to fresh brick and mortar. “Buildings aren’t going to make a difference,” he says.

The University of Michigan football team, playing in an ancient stadium that will contain 107,000 fans each of seven Saturday afternoons this fall, will generate more than $21 million in ticket sales this year; the Gophers will be overjoyed if they pull in half that. The University of Tennessee will earn something in the vicinity of $35 million. And yet Maturi remains oddly optimistic that the Gophers can rise to great heights.

“I spent a lot of years at Wisconsin,” he notes. “In my estimation, their football program in the eighties and early nineties was a lot worse than the Gophers. It was not a respectable program; it was a bad program. But somehow they went to the Rose Bowl.” He pauses for effect. “Three times.”

And despite the cost of building such a program and the skewed institutional priorities it promotes, a Rose Bowl football team will draw more attention to the university, fill its coffers with alumni donations, and attract more students. Meanwhile, it will allow the golf teams, and the gymnastics team and all the other amateurs to go on practicing and competing in their own little world of minor-league sports, a world so foreign to the high-stakes reality of college football that it can only be properly conveyed with numbers.

In 2001, the Gopher football team generated $11.8 million in revenue; men’s basketball earned about $10.3 million. The other twenty-three teams together brought in less than $6.8 million, about $300,000 each—enough to cover about a quarter of football coach Glen Mason’s annual paycheck.

Still, those teams aren’t going anywhere; Title IX laws mandate equality of opportunity for women athletes (ever wonder why the Gophers have an eighty-five-member women’s crew team?) and influential boosters keep the pressure on the university to maintain their favorite sports at a competitive level. It’s a perfectly reasonable argument, especially when you see the Gopher wrestlers or golfers win national championships and watch women’s basketball and volleyball teams vie for Big Ten titles. They certainly have as much right to the university’s support as the football team.

Football pays the bills, though, and that unites the haves and the have-nots of campus sports in an intimacy that may be a lot more dysfunctional than anyone is prepared to admit.

Mary Jo Kane, director of the university’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport and a member of the committee that recommended Maturi’s hiring last year, is a huge football fan. She also thinks Joel Maturi is the best thing that’s happened to the university’s athletic department in quite a while. But she also understands that the numbers don’t always add up, that even if the university’s investment in a winning football program eventually pays dividends, they won’t necessarily trickle down to the non-moneymakers.

“Even in those programs that do make a profit, do we have any data that that extra profit benefits the entire athletic department? Or is it reinvested into the football program?” she asks. “Profit doesn’t necessarily save everything else.”

Nor does it adequately calculate the value of college sports, which with relatively few exceptions (BCS football and Final Four basketball being the most notable) once happily resided in the bland netherworld of amateur athletics, unsullied by bottom-line economics. Here it was enough to field a team and compete for the sake of competition, far from network TV cameras and cynical sportswriters. Athletes came away from the experience not with agents, endorsements, and seven-figure pro contracts, but with fond memories, good friends, and, as they used to say, the satisfaction of a job well done.

But the star power of major college football and basketball increasingly is skewing the priorities of the amateurs. Witness the push at the U of M in recent years for new women’s basketball and hockey facilities, the baseball team’s annual plea for a new ballpark, and the recent hubbub raised by the U of M women’s crew team, which countered talk of a new football stadium with appeals for a top-of-the-line boat house. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the action.

The bottom-line approach has also sparked bitterness among some in the university’s athletic department over Title IX—the cause, they say, of the unsettled state of college athletics. Wrestling coach J Robinson has made a name for himself nationally among these critics with his outspoken attacks on the federal mandate, which he says threatens the existence of non-revenue sports on every major college campus.

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