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Why is football being played if other sports aren’t?

Courtesy of Rice Athletics

By Ben Baker-Katz     9/15/20 9:21pm

Over the past couple of months, talks about restarting athletic programs have centered on one thing: college football. Even though Rice announced earlier this week that the start of their season would be delayed until Oct. 24, other programs across the country started their seasons this past weekend. 

Though it appears that no other college sports will play this fall, football seems intent on getting a season in. This begs the question, why is it that football is happening even if other sports are canceled?

There are many answers to this question; one would need to write a book to explore all of the cultural and political reasons why football is returning. But the short-term answer, the reason the athletic departments everywhere have been pushing for football to return, is the money having a football season brings to the department. 

Football programs bring in huge amounts of revenue for their athletic departments, and these departments rely heavily on that income. 

According to Vox, the University of Georgia’s football program brought in $129 million during the 2017-2018 season. 

After accounting for their football team’s operating expenses, the athletic department was left with $84.1 million in revenue. 

You might think that’s an absurdly high number, and it is. But to put it in context, let’s look at Louisiana State University’s profit and loss by sport from 2016-2017.

According to former LSU beat writer Ross Dellenger, only three LSU sports that year turned a profit: baseball made $569,148 in profit, men’s basketball $1.6 million and football profited a whopping $56.1 million. 

LSU is special too, in that their baseball program is good enough to make a profit. Of the 299 Division I baseball programs, the NCAA estimates that less than 10% of them turn a profit

While those teams turn a handsome profit, the other 14 sports that LSU offers do not. The least profitable is women’s basketball, which lost $4 million in 2016-2017. When you combine the losses from all 14 sports, they add up to almost $22 million.

The relative monetary success of LSU’s sports is indicative of programs across the country. 

Marshall University, a member of Conference USA and a school that holds a similar athletic standing to Rice, has a football team that nets $1.8 million in revenue. Marshall’s only other team in the green is their men’s basketball team; they earned just $77,181.

This is not a new phenomenon. 

In 1929, the Carnegie Foundation published a 383-page report that made it clear that even then, football dominated athletic revenue.

“Football,” the report said, “carries the bulk of the monetary burden.”

So when athletic directors say their sports can’t survive without football, they aren’t necessarily lying. 

We’re already seeing some of the effects of the pandemic on athletic departments. Stanford University, which is a member of the Pac-12 and thus will most likely not be having a football season this fall, has already announced that they will cut 11 sports at the end of the 2020-2021 school year. 

According to Stanford’s press office, “Stanford Athletics cannot support 36 varsity sports at a championship level while also remaining financially sustainable.”

It is clear that athletic departments need football, and its revenue, to keep their other sports alive. 

This is especially true if, as it looks now, sports will be played without fans for the foreseeable future. Though ticket sales aren’t a huge revenue generator for athletic departments, that additional lack of revenue means that sports will cost even more to keep up.

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