January 21, 2016

This is low-hanging fruit for reporters who cover a college sports program at public universities. Make that expensive fruit.

If they haven’t already, reporters should make an open-records request to gain access to the financial report of their school’s athletic department that gets filed annually to the NCAA. In many cases, the numbers will be illuminating, if not eye-popping.

“These reports can be a great tool for any sports reporter to look at the type of spending that goes on at an individual school,” said Will Hobson, a reporter at The Washington Post.

Hobson did this exercise at the national level to produce a highly compelling and important six-part series on college sports finances that recently ran in The Post. Along with Steven Rich, The Post’s database editor for investigations, they examined the financial records for 48 of the 53 public universities in the “Power 5,” or major conferences; they couldn’t get access to five schools.

Hobson and Rich sought to follow the money to get the answer to their big question. “The NCAA says most athletic departments are losing money [as a reason why schools can’t afford to pay student-athletes],” said Hobson, who prior to joining The Post won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting at the Tampa Bay Times in 2014. “How is that possible when revenues go up year after year?”

The Post’s stories show how it is possible and then some. Hobson and Rich cited numerous examples of excess in college sports spending in an arms race that is way out of control.

According to the Post, Auburn has created more than 100 positions in its athletic department since 2004, including 15 jobs paying $100,000. Clemson is constructing a $55 million building for its football team that will include a miniature golf course and a barber shop. One of the stories detailed the millions that schools are paying to coaches not to coach, the result of them being fired with years and big money still left on their contracts.

Then there’s this whopper from part 1: “In 2014, Rutgers’ athletics deficit topped $36 million, an amount equivalent to losing $1, every second, for a year.”

All those figures are documented in the NCAA reports. Hobson and Rich decided to compare 2014, the most recent year, to the 2004 filings, just prior to the major shifts in conferences and the creation of the new college football playoff. For the most part, Hobson said the reports were made available through open-record requests. However, he added some schools, knowing they would have to produce if asked, already post the reports on their websites.

Hobson and Rich then spent three months reviewing thousands of pages of documents in building a database. That allowed them to place many of the expenditures into context, such as:

“In 2014, these 48 schools spent $772 million combined on athletic facilities, an 89-percent increase from $408 million spent in 2004, adjusted for inflation. Those figures include annual debt payments, capital expenses and maintenance costs.”

Hobson said the data base proved to be their “road map.” It definitely took them to interesting places.

Hobson noticed that Auburn’s recruiting budget had gone up substantially.

“We asked, ‘What’s causing that?'” Hobson said. “They responded, ‘Well, you know we did buy two new jets.’ Of course, they did because the rest of the SEC is doing the same thing. You have to keep up. When you put it all together, you see that it’s global with what’s happening throughout college sports.”

Hobson recalled asking Graham Neff of the Clemson athletic department about the need to build a miniature golf course and other amenities for the football players.

“He was a very candid, forthright guy,” Hobson said. “He made a case that building the miniature golf course was reasonable. He said pouring concrete for the course was not that expensive. That was an interesting conversation.”

Initially, Hobson was concerned these stories would be met with “a collective shrug” from readers who already know there is big-time money in college sports. However, thanks to good old-fashioned reporting — taking the time to sift through and analyze the records — they were able to produce concrete numbers that put this issue into sobering terms.

Hobson said the response revealed “two schools of outrage.”

“One came from the academic side, the folks who think it is outrageous that we even have big-time college sports,” Hobson said. “The other is from the people who like college sports, but think the athletes should be paid. They are outraged that a school can’t afford to give $40,000 to a player, but it is willing to spend $55 million on a new facility with miniature golf and a barber shop, and is willing to give an executive another $200,000.”

At a local level, Hobson believes these athletic finance stories can be done every five years by reporters who cover major public universities. Following the money always makes for interesting reading.

For some reporters, access to the records might be as easy as going to your school’s website.

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Sherman wrote for the Chicago Tribune for 27 years covering the 1985 Bears Super Bowl season, the White Sox, college football, golf and sports media.…
Ed Sherman

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