The University of Alabama-Birmingham dropped its football, bowling and rifle programs in 2014, citing budget issues. As that justification appears to collapse from just about every angle over time, the only plausible motive anybody's proposed has involved the power held by Alabama Crimson Tide-focused members of the university system's board of trustees.
Thursday, the consulting firm OSKR released a 110-plus-page report on UAB's decision, authored by sports economist Daniel Rascher and legal expert Andy Schwarz.
If you only know one thing about it, know it hurts UAB's argument. If you only know two things about it, know that UAB agreed to pay OSKR $80,000 for the review, then called off the deal, and that UAB football boosters paid to see it through.
Lightly edited portions of the summary from the full report:
Athletic Department financial reporting has a tendency to understate revenues and overstate costs. The result is that athletic department accounting provides poor insight into the financial impact of sports.
In general, athletic departments aren't as broke as they'd like you to think. This goes even more so for schools looking to cut sports for reasons that remain suspect.
The literature finds some evidence for positive effect from athletics on applications, enrollment, and student quality; donations; and media exposure for the university, especially among key demographic groups.
On Dec. 2, when school president Ray Watts announced the termination, Blazers football players were upset by his focus on cold finances.
"Some of [my teammates] came from 3,000 miles away to be a part of this," linebacker Tristan Henderson replies in a video that's still hard to watch. "But you say ... numbers? That's what you come at us and say? Numbers?"
Henderson had a point then, and it's much stronger now. There's supposed to be more to a university program than just the numbers. And since UAB claimed its entire decision was based on numbers, if those numbers don't add up ...
We find the three sports in question did not cost the university anywhere near the $3.75 million indicated on UAB's accounting statements. Instead, we conclude the three sports were effectively break-even to slightly positive. Football and bowling showed a modest positive return for 2013-14. Key drivers to this conclusion are:
Athletic Scholarships cost UAB far less than their listed prices.
Conference USA membership is far superior, financially, to any alternative non-FBS conference. C-USA membership likely hinges on UAB fielding a football team.
The value of a scholarship has long been one of college sports' favorite shell games.
And if UAB is forced to leave C-USA due to not keeping football, as would be almost certain, UAB would give up its cut of a national TV deal with ESPN, among other things. While it's not exactly an SEC Network deal, it sure means more exposure and revenue for its members than any non-FBS conference can count on.
Anticipated improvement in ticket sales from 2013-14 and new College Football Playoff revenues will outpace new expenses from Cost of Attendance (COA) stipends and unlimited food allowances. We anticipate the aggregate annual surplus from football, bowling, and rifle would exceed $500,000, even without including the hard-to-quantify benefits to enrollment, donations, and media exposure.
UAB's attendance would've been likely to rise in 2015, considering the Blazers just concluded their best season in a decade and would've hung onto rising star head coach Bill Clark. (He still hasn't taken a job elsewhere, partly for financial reasons.)
OSKR estimates UAB could receive at least $800,000 annually from the Playoff. Despite the Playoff being unlikely to feature non-power teams very often, it does pay out money to every FBS conference. In year one, the Playoff estimated each conference would receive $300,000 per school, plus bonuses. That number will only grow over time.
The COA stipends and food allowances were cited by UAB as costs that would help make football too expensive, despite no other school dropping football due to enhanced scholarships and nobody else complaining all that much about athletes eating more snacks. Scholarship boosts should cost about $1 million a year per school, depending on university numbers.
We see no specific need for any new funding for the three sports to resume in a profitable fashion. Nevertheless, we recommend the community commit to provide UAB with $1.2 million annually, to cover the new COA stipends and to provide a substantial portion of anticipated new debt service for desired facilities improvements. It will also provide funding during the recovery from the setbacks caused by cancellation.
The program has a modest fanbase and an outstanding recruiting region, and Legion Field is certainly a football stadium. And it has Clark. UAB could fire a team back up in, say, 2017 and be in better shape than at least somebody else in FBS.
But if UAB did bring football back, it would start over almost entirely. The roster's spread throughout the Southeast. Facility upgrades were already on hold. Clark would merit a more confidence-inspiring contract than his original one.
To set things right, UAB would have to spend extra money to compensate for the money it spent getting rid of something it didn't need to get rid of.