Programs escalate amenities race to over-the-top levels

DALLAS – To hear about the football locker room at Oregon, you would think the Ducks’ athletic director was former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski.

It is two stories tall. Outfitted with three 60-inch plasma television sets, including two rigged for Xbox games. Each of the 120 cubbyholes is equipped with an independent ventilation system. There is an Internet and video-game connection for each locker.

The independent electronic systems can be activated only by a special code that includes a scan of its resident player’s thumbprint.

Cost per locker: $26,667, or, if you think about it, the sticker price of that new car coaches and boosters aren’t allowed to give athletes as enticement to attend their school.

Unlike what Kozlowski is charged with doing to fund his apparently exorbitant lifestyle, what Oregon athletic director Bill Moos did for Ducks football players is not only legal, it is barely extraordinary in the arms race of college athletics.

From the Pacific to the Atlantic, from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, colleges are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build practice facilities, expand stadiums and improve all types of buildings that make up their sports complexes.

Kansas just built a gymnasium strictly for volleyball. Oklahoma was one of the first to construct a basketball practice facility with mirrored offices, locker rooms, courts, mini-theaters and weight rooms for the men’s and women’s programs. Penn State recently added 12,000 seats to its hard-to-get-to middle-Pennsylvania football stadium to give the Nittany Lions the second-biggest football stadium in the country, with room for more than 107,000 fans.

The good news: Most of the building boom is being funded by private donations raised by athletic departments.

The bad news: In many cases, the building boom is being funded by private donations that very well could have been tapped by academic departments.

Not only that, but a recently released review on eight years of college sports programs’ spending, conducted by an independent group of researchers hired by the NCAA, found that it generates neither profits nor wins.

“Increased spending on football and men’s basketball produce neither an increase nor a decrease in net operating revenue,” stated the report by directors from the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, and the Washington think tanks Sebago Associates and Brookings Institution. “One dollar spent on football or basketball is associated with, on average, about one dollar in additional operating revenue.

“Increased spending on football or men’s basketball does not produce medium-term increases in winning percentages,” it added.

In other words, most athletic departments are lucky to break even. Those that make money, such as the Texas Longhorns run by DeLoss Dodds, are anomalies.

Why all the excessive spending then?

Those in athletic administration explained that they must fund their programs somehow and that they have only so many revenue streams with which to do so. State money is off limits for most athletic spending. Yet some programs are expected to funnel some earnings into their school’s general fund.

“The state legislatures started pulling back about 10 years ago and started cutting our budgets in half,” said Oregon professor Jim Earl, co-chair of the reform-minded Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics. “Someone thought they could make up for the decay by pumping up athletic programs.

“It’s the Flutie factor, too,” Earl said. “When Doug Flutie was quarterback (at Boston College), the football team was really doing a great job and applications went up.”

It proved a marketing boost for the school.

“I think it’s nonsense,” Earl said. “It’s a poor excuse to fund athletics.”

The real reason for all the athletic spending seems simpler. Everyone wants to keep up with the Washingtons. And the Michigan Staters. And the Floridians and so on.

Washington set the standard for the Pac-10 athletic departments in the Northwest. Oregon decided to do the Huskies one better.

Oklahoma built its basketball complex. Its main rival, Texas, followed.

If they don’t chase each other, someone is going to lose a prized recruit to a rival. The kids are attracted to the bells and whistles just like they’re drawn to the school with the best TV package.

It is one thing to renovate a venerable old stadium or arena. It is quite another thing to build a Versailles for what supposedly is a group of amateur athletes to practice or play in. The latter is a problem that needs to be controlled, if only someone would step up and say, “Enough already.”

And this doesn’t even take into account the ever-growing list of coaches who are being paid $1 million or $2 million a year to coach football or basketball on campuses supposedly created for higher learning.

“There should be some way of turning this all around,” said Mary P. McKeown-Moak, a college financial officer-turned-college athletics consultant for MGT of America. “But there isn’t a good way of controlling the arms race at this point.”

The NCAA said it would like to rein in the out-of-control spending, but it is hamstrung by the courts. Conferences such as the Big Ten have tried to institute spending limits for member institutions but found themselves bumping up against not only intransigence, but anti-trust laws as well.

But that’s exactly what is needed in college athletics, spending caps just like the pros they are so close to emulating. Impose luxury taxes on schools that just can’t get by without plasma screens and personalized ventilation systems for each locker.

Or maybe what is needed to sober up athletic departments that can’t control themselves is the same remedy it is taking in professional sports for franchises that can’t control themselves: someone going belly up.