By Mark Hyman The question of the week for inquiring sports minds: Is the Atlantic Coast Conference just a bunch of artless, greedy swine, or is it just a bunch of artless, cash-strapped colleges? After mounting a corporate-style-raid on the Big East conference to acquire three new schools and bring its total membership to 12, the ACC settled for two. It bagged the University of Miami and Virginia Tech -- and the prospect of many more millions in football revenue.
ACC officials deserve most of the darts coming their way. Their game plan had all the finesse of a recovered-fumble run by an overweight nose tackle. Ask red-faced Boston College and Syracuse, which were headed for the Big East exit, too, before ACC infighting caused their invitations to be revoked.
ECONOMIC ENGINES. And the ACC's spin-doctoring fell flat. Despite its dogged dissembling, this endless soap opera was all about the money: Just one more appearance by an ACC school in the Bowl Championship Series, the quasi-national championship for college pigskin, could be worth close to $5 million to the conference. And when the BCS TV contracts are up for renewal in 2006, the ACC's share may rise by several million more.
But can you blame schools for scrambling for financial daylight? For following the money when they need it so badly?
Men's football -- and to a lesser degree basketball -- are the economic engines that drive college athletics. Most big-time sports departments depend on ticket receipts and TV contracts to pay the bills, without the assistance that subsidizes the debate club or any other college activities. And, of course, big-time sports attract alumni donations.
SUBSIDIZE WRESTLING. With so much riding on income generated by so few teams, schools are forever alert to turning first downs into a pounding drive for profits. The answer can be a stadium renovation that adds 20,000 cash-producing seats -- or a football power like the Miami Hurricanes grabbing at a better offer. Miami President Donna E. Shalala, who on June 30 ditched the Big East for the ACC and fired a shot heard round the college world, had little choice. Should Shalala, former Health & Human Services Secretary, have turned down the chance for upwards of several million a year?
For making the future of the Big East so uncertain, the ACC may have more explaining to do. But one way to show that this unseemly spectacle wasn't entirely about bulking up overfed football and basketball programs would be to plow some of the new money into lesser sports.
Wrestling, track and field, and other "nonrevenue" sports have been under fire for a decade. Since 2000, 30 major universities have eliminated more than 60 men's and women's sports teams, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Countless other schools have trimmed athletic scholarships and frozen coaches' pay.
LAST LAP. It's not just undercapitalized schools that are putting the squeeze on minor sports programs. In the past two years, the University of Kansas (men's swimming and tennis), Tulane (men's track), and Dartmouth (men's and women's swimming) all have taken the hatchet to lesser teams.
Even at Miami, the sun and surf capital of higher ed, the men's swim team took its last lap this spring. Maybe it could be revived with the extra cash the school is sure to see. A million bucks buys a lot of pool time. Hyman is a contributing editor for BusinessWeek