The University of Alabama at Birmingham announced this week that it’s shutting down its football program. All 17 fans are really upset about it.
For 20 years, UAB football has struggled to attract fans and donors. For the most part, its attendance has been a joke. The photo above is a fair representation of what it’s like to see a game at 71,000-seat Legion Field.
For last year’s football season, the Blazers averaged 11,589 tickets sold, but anyone who thinks there were that many people actually there is lying to himself. As part of that average number sold, however, the city of Birmingham bought 5,000 tickets for each game, costing city taxpayers $225,000. So fewer than 7,000 tickets were actually sold on average if you don’t count the tickets the city bought for politicians to give away. The 11,589 average was the second lowest in all of big-time college football last year.
The program has been a joke.
Now that the university has announced plans to shut the football program down, news stories are filled with outrage about this alleged travesty. The president of the Birmingham City Council called rumors of the impending shutdown “an attack on the city of Birmingham.” Many supporters of UAB claim that a powerful trustee of the University of Alabama system — the son of former Alabama Coach Bear Bryant — engineered the shutdown out of revenge for a letter written 20 years ago by UAB’s former basketball coach and athletic director.
All of these stories are silly and speculative. Even if they were true, though, they’re irrelevant. All that matters is that Alabama taxpayers are subsidizing this rather large hole in the ground to the tune of $20 million a year.
UAB president Ray Watts explained the decision to end the school’s football program in very clear financial terms. He laid out the facts in a way that the decision should seem obvious, but that hasn’t stopped local newspaper coverage from accusing him of being “cruel” and focusing too much on the numbers. National coverage — such as this story from ESPN — has generally treated Watts as though he had murdered a child or something equally heinous. The truth, though, is that he said continuing to fund football would require the university to take money away from areas that truly matter to its mission.
“While this will be a challenging transition for the UAB family, the financial picture made our decision very clear,” Watts said in UAB’s news release. “We will not cut the current athletic budget, but in order to invest at least another $49 million to keep football over the next five years, we would have to redirect funds away from other critical areas of importance like education, research, patient care or student services.” [Emphasis added.]
Do these people complaining about the decision understand that running a football program isn’t necessarily central to the mission of a medical research university?
The truth is that it’s becoming more and more expensive to run a football program at college football’s highest level. If your program isn’t profitable, you can’t keep competing unless you pour many millions of dollars into subsidizing the sport. Isn’t it time to ask why we’re using the coercion of state government to take the money out of taxpayers’ pockets for the benefit of a very few people?
I love college football and basketball. I follow University of Alabama sports closely, but it wouldn’t bother me if all college sports were shut down. I care a lot about Alabama football — and I love it when my alma mater wins championships — but my university shouldn’t exist just to support athletics. Sports aren’t core to a university’s mission.
If I had my way, major college sports as we know them would have never existed. But since they do — and they’re popular enough that they’re not going away — schools need to make decisions driven by the costs involved.
For schools with programs that make money, it’s an easy choice to stay in the game. The schools of the five top conferences typically have enough money coming to them from television revenue, ticket sales and private donations that they’re making money. Many of those schools also make a lot of money from licensing their names and logos for clothing and various other products. And there are also some which find a successful program helpful in recruiting students from around the country.
But for schools without profitable sports programs, someone needs to make smart and responsible financial decisions. Taxpayers shouldn’t be required to subsidize these sports with these many millions of dollars. Unprofitable programs need to be disbanded or they need to compete at lower levels of competition — unless they can find ways to get private funding.
Football programs at schools such as Alabama, Florida, Texas, Ohio State, Southern Cal and so forth are going to be profitable. Sports programs at much smaller schools — especially outside of football — are fairly inexpensive to operate and thus aren’t a burden on their schools. They don’t bring in big money, but they also don’t cost big money. So they provide a nice college atmosphere for the schools and educational opportunities for the athletes. There seems to be an obvious case to be made for programs at these two ends of the extremes, assuming college sports is going to exist at all.
It’s those in the middle — those schools without a financial base or profitable following — that are the problem. They’re like people who are broke but buy expensive houses. There’s nothing wrong with being broke and there’s nothing wrong with living in an expensive house, but you have to be realistic about what you can afford.
UAB is an excellent research institution. Its medical and dental schools are great. It does internationally recognized medical research. Its hospitals are nationally recognized in certain specialties. The university is the largest employer in Birmingham and it contributes greatly to the state and the city. But UAB needs to recognize what it is and what it’s not. It has no business pumping $20 million of taxpayer money into a program that relatively few people care about.
This is the problem when tax money is used to pay for things. Money is taken out of the pockets of millions of people to support the desires of a very small number of people. If those few people want UAB football to exist, they should pony up the money. If they’re unwilling or unable to put up the money, the program shouldn’t exist.
Despite the emotional rhetoric of people who either can’t or won’t look at the hard, cold numbers, UAB did the right thing in killing its football program. A fine university will be stronger without this money-losing albatross.