[Paleopsych] Ellen Staurowsky: Sports/Giving Non-Correlation
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The Relationship Between Athletics and Higher Education Fund Raising:
The Myths Far Outweigh the Facts
By Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D. Professor and Chair, Department of Sport
Since the formalization of intercollegiate athletics within
institutions of higher learning in the late 1800s/early 1900s, college
presidents, legislators, alumni/nae, faculty, athletic directors, and
average citizens have speculated about the relationship between the
success of athletic programs and the generosity of donors. As a matter
of first impression, it is easy to understand why most people assume
that big-time college sport has a positive influence on donation
levels to institutions. Given the multi-billion dollar industry which
is college sport and the degree to which the public is exposed to
March Madness and the Bowl Championship Series via television, print
media, and the Internet, circumstantial evidence reinforces a common
sense belief that big-time college sport possesses the potential to
generate big-time revenue for colleges and universities.
One would be naïve to deny that substantial amounts of money are
generated by football and men's basketball. However, caution should be
used so as to avoid reaching a false conclusion based on superficial
information alone. The mere fact that some athletic programs generate
enormous revenues and a high degree of public visibility should not be
construed to mean that success in athletics yields higher rates or
levels of philanthropic or charitable donations to colleges and
universities. In point of fact, the results of studies examining the
relationship between athletic programs and higher education fund
raising over a 70-year span of time suggest that there is either no
relationship or a very weak relationship at best between the two.
The remainder of this paper is organized into three sections. The
first will highlight studies that have focused on this question,
offering brief summaries of findings for each study. The second
section will discuss problems associated with the existing studies and
how this impacts the interpretation of the findings. The final section
will offer observations about how this information relates to the
broader discussion regarding compliance with Title IX in
intercollegiate athletic programs.
Summary of Studies - Athletics and Its Impact on Giving to Higher
Marts (1934) - sought to understand if an emphasis on football with
the goal of gaining national visibility resulted in a financial
benefit for colleges and universities between the years 1921-1930.
Marts studied 32 institutions in total, 16 of which had made a
commitment to upgrading their football program while the remaining
institutions were classified as part of a control group. Schools
without an emphasis on football realized a 126 percent increase in
their endowments while schools with an emphasis on football realized
an increase of 105 percent. Marts did note that several of the schools
that opted to build a powerhouse football team were experiencing
financial conditions that he described as "pitiful" because of the
investment needed in promoting football.
Cutlip (1965) - a noted researcher in the area of institutional fund
raising, Cutlip examined the impact of athletic program success on
endowments, enrollments, contributions, and reputations of schools. He
found that these variables were unaffected or negatively affected by
the success of athletic programs.
Spaeth & Greeley (1970) - concluded that contrary to previous
researchers who found a negative impact between athletic success and
alumni giving, winning football teams may prompt alumni to raise the
level of their contributions. However, Spaeth and Greeley did not test
their hypothesis empirically. Rather, they offered speculation that
the emotional attachment of alumni to a winning football team would
probably predispose them to give more to their alma mater.
Amdur (1971) - in a critique of the college sports establishment,
Amdur wrote anecdotally about the ebb and flow of alumni contributions
as they related to the fortunes of athletic teams, citing a decrease
in contributions at the University of Georgia in the wake of mediocre
football seasons, increases at the University of Missouri following
winning football seasons, a modest decline in an otherwise decade of
increasing alumni giving at Amherst in the two years when the college
did not win the "Little Three" football crown, and a "dramatic jump"
in alumni giving at Wilkes College in years when its football team's
performance improved dramatically.
Springer (1974) - examined the impact of dropping football at 151
colleges between 1939 and 1974. Springer reported that officials
involved in these decisions were originally concerned about the impact
cuts would have on alumni giving. According to Springer, almost all
the schools suffered no ill effects from cutting football and in some
instances the cuts "had considerable positive results."
Budig (1976) - analyzing data on alumni giving for 79 colleges and
universities during a four-year span of time during the 1960s and
1970s, Budig sought to determine whether total alumni giving was
related to the performance records of football and (men's) basketball
teams. Budig found that the "significant relationships between
athletic success and alumni giving" were so "infrequent" and "random"
that no systematic link between athletic success and alumni giving was
Sigelman & Carter (1979) - examining 138 Division I colleges and
universities for the academic year 1975-1976, these researchers tested
the validity of the idea that "alumni giving varies according to a
school's success on the playing field." Using correlation and
regression analysis, Sigelman and Carter related the alumni-giving
change figures for a given year with three athletic success measures
(basketball record, football record, bowl appearance). They reported
no relationship between success or failure in football and basketball
and increases and decreases in alumni giving.
Brooker & Klastoria (1981) - explored the relationship between the
records of football and (men's) basketball teams of 58 major U.S.
universities with average contributions from solicited alumni and the
per capita gifts to the annual funds. Brooker and Klastoria concluded
that team success did correlate highly with alumni generosity for
schools within homogeneous groupings. However, they went on to
equivocate that the relationship "depends on some institutional
factors" and the nature of the institution (public or private). Alumni
at private institutions, schools with a religious affiliation, and
mid-sized public universities appeared more inclined to be positively
affected by the success of athletic teams. In an analysis of all state
universities in the sample, they found inconsistent results. They also
noted that a major question remained to be answered, that being the
cost-benefit relationship of athletics to the trends found. In effect,
even in circumstances where there may be a positive relationship
between athletic success and alumni contributions, the financial
benefit may not be worth the cost associated with fielding and
promoting a winning team.
Coughlin & Erekson (1984) - focusing on the relationship between
athletic success and contributions to athletic programs, Coughlin &
Erekson conducted a cross-sectional study of 56 NCAA Division I
institutions. Several measures of athletic success, including game
attendance, post-season play, and winning percentage were identified
as significant determinants of giving to athletic programs.
McCormick & Tinsley (1990) - applying a two-equation model to data
obtained from Clemson University for a four-year period of time, the
authors reported a connection between contributions to the athletic
program and to the academic endowment. They identified the success of
the football program as a determinant of the level of contributions
made to the athletic department while athletic contributions are a
determinant of alumni giving to the endowment. According to the
authors, an estimated 10 percent increase in the level of donations to
the athletic booster club was associated with a 5 percent increase in
contributions to athletics.
Grimes & Chressanthis (1994) - empirically analyzed the effect of
intercollegiate athletics on alumni contributions to the academic
endowment using time series data over a 30-year span of time from what
they described as a "representative" National Collegiate Athletic
Association (NCAA) Division I university, that being Mississippi State
University. Based on this case study, the authors concluded that
alumni contributions were positively related to the overall winning
percentage of the football, (men's) basketball, and baseball programs.
Grimes and Chressanthis report the existence of a "spillover benefit"
to the university because athletic success appears to influence the
level of alumni giving to the academic side of the institution.
Television exposure was identified as influencing donors positively,
while NCAA sanctions for rules violations appear to have a negative
effect on donors. The authors noted that the generalizability of their
findings was limited because this was a case study.
Harrison, Mitchell, & Peterson (1995) - examined the alumni giving
patterns of 18 colleges and universities. Criteria for selection
included public/private, large/small, and research/teaching
orientation. Whereas fraternity/sorority affiliations were associated
positively with alumni giving, having an NCAA Division I athletic
program had no significant effect.
Rhoads & Gerking (2000) - conducted an empirical examination of the
links between athletics, academics, and educational contributions in
87 universities that sponsor Division I football and men's basketball
teams (most members of the SEC, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast, Pacific 10,
Big 12, and Western Athletic conferences were included as well as
representatives from other conferences and major independents). Rhoads
and Gerking concluded that total contributions are not affected by
year-to-year changes in the success of athletic teams. Total
contributions from alumni may be affected by the performance of
athletic teams. Further, alumni seem to respond more positively to
football bowl wins and negatively to NCAA probation. The estimated
impact of athletic success, however, is relatively weak compared to
the effect of student and faculty quality on alumni giving.
Debunking the Myth That Athletics Success Favorably Influences Alumni
Well respected scholars (Frey, 1985; Gerdy, 2002; Zimbalist, 1999,
2000; Sack & Staurowsky, 1998; Shulman & Bowen, 2001; Sperber, 2000;
Thelin, 1994) who have intensively studied intercollegiate athletics
and its relationship with higher education have examined this body of
work in total and concluded that there is little if any empirical
support for the notion that athletic success translates into increased
levels of alumni support to institutions of higher learning. In 1985,
James Frey, a sociologist from the University of Nevada-Los Vegas
characterized this as the "winning-team" myth.
In offering possible explanations for the lack of a positive
relationship between athletic success and general endowment funds,
economist Andrew Zimbalist (1999) points out that "the main
contributors who seem to respond to athletic prominence are boosters,
not the typical alumnus or academic philanthropist" (p. 168). This
reliance on contributors who do not have an academic interest in
institutions of higher learning started in the first half of the
twentieth century (roughly 1910-1946) when men's athletic programs
received financial support through the development and emergence of
booster organizations, which came to be called athletic associations.
Historian and former chancellor at the College of William and Mary,
John Thelin (1994) has described the booster phenomenon as "one of the
most significant organizational developments during the period between
the world wars" because the booster organization or athletic
association was a "legal corporation that was a part of, but apart
from, university structure" (p. 97).
The relative independence of athletic associations and other athletic
fund raising groups on college campuses, separated as they are from
institutional advancement offices, provides grounds to raise serious
questions about the validity of the assertion that athletic success
enhances the ability of institutions to raise money for general funds
or endowments. Concerns regularly emerge surrounding the inability of
institutions to control the behavior of overzealous boosters who act
improperly by providing inappropriate benefits to athletes and who
attempt to influence the establishment of academic and athletic
priorities on their campuses.
Former assistant commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and
legislative assistant at the NCAA, John Gerdy (2002), provides some
insight into this mistaken notion that there is a positive link
between the athletic department and the institution when it comes to
matters of fund raising. He writes: "... many big-time athletic
programs are run as independent, profit-driven, auxiliary enterprises.
Despite the claim from athletic fund-raisers that they work closely
with the institutional advancement office to raise funds for the
university, such cooperation is usually superficial. The separation
and mistrust that exists between most academic and athletic
communities means that virtually all athletic department fund-raising
efforts are directed at raising money specifically for sports, rather
than for the institution generally...It is rare when an athletic
department donates money to the institution because there is no excess
revenue to donate." (pgs. 164-165).
Richard Conklin, a top administrator at the University of Notre Dame,
has commented similarly about this separation. He observed, "We at
Notre Dame have had extensive experience trying to turn athletic
interests of `subway alumni' [read booster] to academic development
purposes--and we have had no success. There is no evidence that the
typical, non-alumnus fan of Notre Dame has much interest in the
educational mission." About the myth of athletics contributing to the
financial welfare of the academic component of educational
institutions, former President of Michigan State University John D.
Biaggio stated the "myth of institutional dependency on athletic
revenues - therefore on athletic victories - needs to be aggressively
refuted" (as quoted in Zimbalist, 2000).
If one comes to terms with the fact that athletic programs clearly
fund raise for their own needs while providing essentially lip-service
to the overall fund raising goals of colleges and universities, one
can begin to understand why the notion of a "spillover benefit" from
athletics has been questioned as often as it has. First, Andrew
Zimbalist (2000) has estimated that "no more than a dozen" of the
300-plus schools in the NCAA Division I generate surplus funds. The
average subsidy a Division I-A athletic department receives from the
institutional general fund is nine percent, or roughly $1.3 million
(Fulks, 2000). Thus, even if one were to concede that indirect
benefits in the form of brand name recognition exist, any "spillover"
goes back to most athletic programs anyway in the form of
Second, data that is often times interpreted to be evidence of a
"spillover benefit" may actually reflect a temporary response to a
winning team or more importantly, a factor that in reality undermines
the ability of institutional fund raisers to do their jobs. Consider
this data from Central Connecticut State University for the year
1999-2000. In the spring of 2000, Central Connecticut made its first
appearance in the NCAA men's Division I tournament. The madness of
March resulted in an 88 percent increase in donations to the athletic
department and a 24 percent increase in alumni giving (Merritt, 2000).
This data set, however, does not distinguish between giving to the
athletic fund and giving to the general fund. Whereas there may in
fact be occasional upsurges in giving based on the success of
individual teams, the meaning of that increase needs to be considered
within the context of the overall pattern of giving for an
institution. Otherwise, such a report can be misleading by hiding the
very real possibility that while donations to the athletic program
went up, donations to the institution's general fund remained stable
or declined during the same period of time.
In the absence of having full disclosure of the entire institutional
fund-raising record with a complete breakdown of athletic and general
fund donations, the assumed "spillover benefit" may in fact mask the
"undermining effect" that occurs when athletic fund-raising creates a
clear competing interest with academic and other educational
priorities where limited financial resources exist.
Beyond the mechanics of financial accounting and interpretation of the
data regarding athletic program success and institutional fund
raising, there are problems associated with the assumptions that shape
the discussion about athletic success and fund raising. The romantic
image of undergraduates and alums cheering the team to victory and
forming a bond with each other and their alma maters while watching
football games has been an enduring one in the marketing of college
life and intercollegiate athletics. Regardless of how valid the
romantic image is, the question of whether alumni/nae support the
current emphasis on sports in colleges and universities yields
interesting results. In one of the most comprehensive surveys of
college graduates ever done, which was distributed to 60,000
alumni/nae who entered college in the years 1951, 1976, and 1989 and
produced a 75 percent rate of return, college graduates thought that
there should be less emphasis on intercollegiate athletics (Shulman &
Bowen, 2001). Of additional relevance to this discussion, Shulman and
Bowen found that the general giving rates of athletes from what they
called "high-profile" teams actually dropped substantially within
class cohorts. Whereas 64 percent of athletes entering college in 1951
in the high profile sports (football, men's basketball) gave back to
their institutions, that figure dropped to 39 percent in the class
cohort for 1989. In effect, even those individuals participating in
the programs that receive the most emphasis and experience the most
success are less inclined to give than they were 50 years ago. These
findings lend further credibility to what the data on athletic success
and institutional fund raising already shows.
Finally, the other major flaw in the studies that have been done on
athletic success and institutional fund raising is the failure to
include women in the analyses. All of the studies in the second
section of this paper focused on what have historically been thought
of as the "revenue-producing" sports (i.e., football and men's
basketball). Recent work that has addressed women and athletic fund
raising reveals that women's sports have the capacity to generate
interest and revenue and that institutional fund raisers (whether
located in the athletic department or advancement office) need to
learn more about specific strategies for appealing to women graduates
as legitimate donor constituencies (Curtis, 2000; Staurowsky, 1996;
Verner, 1996). This work is part of the expanding base of information
about women and philanthropy that is growing in the fields of
education, politics, female-owned and operated businesses, and
charitable community giving.
As Sigelman and Carter (1979) so astutely observed almost 25 years
ago, "the lack of any relationship between success in intercollegiate
athletics and increased alumni giving probably matters less than the
fact that so many people believe that such a relationship exists" (p.
293). Former university president James Duderstadt's (2000) thoughts
about the construction of athletic financing schemes are particularly
illuminating in this regard. In his book, Intercollegiate Athletics
and the University: A University President's Perspective, explains in
detail how tenuous athletic budgets are. He points out that, "the
financing of intercollegiate athletics is also complicated by the fact
that while costs such as staff salaries, student-athlete financial
aid, and facilities maintenance are usually fixed, revenues are highly
variable. In fact, in a given year, only television revenue for
regular events is predictable. All other revenue streams, such as gate
receipts, bowl or NCAA tournament income, licensing revenue, and
private gifts, are highly variable. While some revenues such as gate
receipts can be accurately predicted, particularly when season ticket
sales are significant, others such as licensing and private giving are
quite volatile. Yet many athletic departments (including Michigan of
late) build these speculative revenues into annual budgets that
sometimes crash and burn in serious deficits when these revenues fail
to materialize" (p. 128-129). He goes on to note that, "...this
business philosophy would rapidly lead to bankruptcy in the corporate
world." The parallel he draws between the corporate world and the
institutional financing of some of the major athletic programs around
the country is an apt one in light of recent revelations regarding the
lack of fiscal accountability in the corporate world and the declining
trust the American public has in the U.S. economy. Just as corporate
executives at Enron, Worldcom, and Arthur Anderson failed to fully
disclose the weaknesses in the financial structures of the businesses
they represented, the perceived economic viability and profitability
of men's revenue-generating athletic programs has fed from a
well-spring of myth that has little foundation in fact.
To introduce the issue of athletic success and fund raising into a
discussion about Title IX is counterproductive at several levels.
Compliance with Title IX will not alter this picture one way or
another, regardless of what various individuals may wish to assert.
The historical record simply does not bear this out. Second, the fact
that institutions claim that they do not have the finances to comply
with the requirements of Title IX as stated reveals the essential
falsity at the core of the assertion that big-time men's sports
programs generate a "spillover effect" that benefits the institution
at large. If this were the case, representatives of athletic programs
would not then be claiming when the issue of Title IX compliance comes
up that they cannot afford to sponsor women's programs. Third, Title
IX's focus should, and must, remain on the educational benefits to be
derived from athletic participation in a non-sex discriminatory
environment. Regardless of the financial arguments made by
institutions, thirty years of financial planning ought to have
positioned institutions to resolve any funding problems they had in
meeting the needs of women students on their campuses. Claiming
financial distress as the reason for non-compliance with Title IX at
this late juncture is an admission that the legislation has been
ignored for three decades.
Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D.
Professor and Chair, Department of Sport Studies
Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY 14850
607-274-1730 (office); 607-274-1943 (fax); staurows at ithaca.edu
About the author: Before pursuing a career as a sport sociologist and
researcher, Dr. Staurowsky worked for 15 years as a coach and director
of athletics at the college/university level. She is co-author of the
book, College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA
Amateur Myth and she has written extensively on the related topics of
intercollegiate athletics, gender equity, and athletic fund-raising.
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