Thursday, July 7, 2011

Investing In Football

The headline below has nothing to do with Georgetown football, but the story does. posted a story this week titled “ESPN’s Wimbledon Bid Is The Future Of Televised Sports,” a review of the circumstances in which NBC, after having broadcast the world’s preeminent tennis tournament since the dawn of the open era, lost its rights to ESPN, a network which has over the past two decades picked up Major League Baseball, the NBA, most of NCAA college sports, and the entire sports remnants of the ABC television network. But what makes this story interesting is not that ESPN took it away inasmuch as NBC gave it up."

"NBC's not stupid, and GE didn't become the third-largest public company because it passes on chances to make the most money,” wrote author Barry Petchesky. “The decision comes down to opportunity cost. On one hand, there's the viewership lost by airing a match we already know the outcome of. On the other hand, there's the viewership lost by preempting The Today Show for live tennis. Guess which brings in more ad sales?”

"NBC, or any network that commits to a long-term TV deal, has to be concerned not only with recouping its money from commercial sales, but also the lost money from whatever's being preempted. For NBC, that's a fortnight of The Today Show, with around 5 million viewers daily; for ESPN, it's the 7am SportsCenter.”

Hold that thought as we begin with a review of the costs associated with intercollegiate football at Georgetown University.

First, this question: what is the opportunity cost for Georgetown to be a competitive football program? Or, more appropriately, how much investment will it take? For this column, a lot less opinion and a few more numbers will be in play. Few fans pay attention to a team's budget--perhaps it's assumed that schools send an equivalent amount on equivalent sports.

A closer look at U.S. Department of Education budgets for football suggests a changing landscape. Five seasons ago, the 2005-06 academic year, Georgetown ranked as follows among those Eastern schools playing Division I-AA football:

1James Madison University$4,208,133
2Fordham University$3,898,156
3University of Delaware$3,890,595
4Villanova University$3,791,955
5University of Richmond$3,658,117
6Colgate University$3,628,807
7Hofstra University$3,602,055
8University of Massachusetts$3,318,205
9Lehigh University$3,261,340
10Northeastern University$3,166,474
11Lafayette College$3,109,946
12University of Rhode Island$3,040,230
13University of New Hampshire$3,022,471
14College of William and Mary$3,006,528
15College of the Holy Cross$2,716,725
16University of Maine$2,621,578
17Bucknell University$2,488,592
18Yale University$2,155,095
19Harvard University$2,090,271
20Columbia University$1,971,707
21Towson University$1,962,285
22Princeton University$1,801,579
23Georgetown University$1,666,297
24Dartmouth College$1,624,336
25University of Pennsylvania$1,497,051
26Cornell University$1,441,074
27Brown University$1,256,085
28Stony Brook University$1,225,656
29Wagner College$1,198,243
30Sacred Heart University$994,970
31Central Connecticut State Univ$972,558
32Monmouth University$880,823
33SUNY at Albany$877,574
34Bryant University$876,671
35Saint Francis University$867,629
36Robert Morris University$843,158
37Duquesne University$465,936
38Marist College$456,575
39Iona College$355,172

Twenty-third? Not great, but look at the comparable budgets: Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn. Say what you will, but those are names Georgetown could be comfortable with.  In 2009-10, look how that ranking had changed:

1University of Delaware$5,744,858
2Villanova University$5,228,231
3Fordham University$4,809,131
4University of Richmond$4,783,891
5College of William and Mary$4,535,570
6Colgate University$4,514,524
7Old Dominion University$4,415,209
8University of Massachusetts$4,332,838
9Lafayette College$4,198,351
10James Madison University$4,197,097
11Towson University$4,050,261
12College of the Holy Cross$3,920,294
13University of New Hampshire$3,824,532
14University of Rhode Island$3,730,269
15Lehigh University$3,671,791
16University of Maine$3,593,951
17Stony Brook University$3,452,189
18Bucknell University$3,008,262
19Princeton University$2,929,356
20Columbia University$2,745,817
21Yale University$2,507,069
22Monmouth University$2,265,998
23Harvard University$2,142,235
24University of Pennsylvania$2,079,036
25Cornell University$2,015,525
26Dartmouth College$1,920,170
27SUNY at Albany$1,903,667
28Wagner College$1,866,061
29Bryant University$1,847,498
30Central Connecticut State Univ$1,779,801
31Robert Morris University$1,639,539
32Brown University$1,538,414
33Duquesne University$1,529,237
34Georgetown University$1,430,512
35Saint Francis University$1,415,266
36Sacred Heart University$1,384,786
37Marist College$760,699

Goodbye, Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn. Say hello to Duquesne, St. Francis, and Sacred Heart.

So what changed? For Georgetown, very little. Its four year net change in football spending was a slight decrease from $1.6 to $1.4 million. Trouble was (and is), it was the only school in the region to actually decrease spending. When viewed on percentage change, Georgetown's place in the Eastern landscape is even more disturbing

1Duquesne University228%
2Stony Brook University182%
3Monmouth University157%
4SUNY at Albany117%
5Bryant University111%
6Towson University106%
7Robert Morris University94%
8Central Connecticut State Univ83%
9Marist College67%
10Saint Francis University63%
11Princeton University63%
12Wagner College56%
13College of William and Mary51%
14University of Delaware48%
15College of the Holy Cross44%
16Cornell University40%
17Columbia University39%
18Sacred Heart University39%
19University of Pennsylvania39%
20Villanova University38%
21University of Maine37%
22Lafayette College35%
23University of Richmond31%
24University of New Hampshire27%
25Colgate University24%
26Fordham University23%
27University of Rhode Island23%
28Brown University22%
29Bucknell University21%
30Dartmouth College18%
31Yale University16%
32Lehigh University13%
33Harvard University2%
34James Madison University0%
35Georgetown University-14%
(new programs since 2006 not included)

It’s no secret that Georgetown spends a lot less on football, than, say, men’s basketball. There is historical as well as economic precedent for this. The dropping of major college football remains a tear in the Georgetown athletic fabric sixty years later, because it cemented an institutional distrust in sports becoming bigger than the school could manage. Football wasn’t dropped for scandal, nor for any shame brought upon the school, but for the sin that it was an expensive proposition for the University. That football returned at all was based upon the premise—a compact, perhaps-- that football at Georgetown, expensive football, would not return as it did before.

“Any form of highly subsidized football is an economic impossibility here at Georgetown,” wrote The HOYA in 1964. “There is big-time football and non-scholarship football. There is no in between.”

For most of Georgetown’s 28 other sports, then as now, its programs are underfunded. It’s not a slight, but it’s reflective of a school which decided long ago not to invest in the land and the tools that major college programs do to be in that select company. Few expected Georgetown ever to be in the select company of major college athletics again, but it happened.

What happened was, of course, men’s basketball, which also existed on a shoestring when John Thompson arrived in 1972. The perfect storm of Thompson, the arrival of the Big East Conference, and the explosion of TV sports elevated Georgetown from a local team to a national one within three years, even if McDonough Gym was better suited to a Division II program than one that was moving through the NCAA Tournament.

It was during the early 1980’s (and revisited in 2004) that Georgetown took a hard look at the opportunity costs of men’s basketball and decided that the costs of investing in basketball had a return that Georgetown could live with, and be successful with. Georgetown’s basketball spending went from “spending to compete” to “spending to excel”.

Georgetown football does not spend to excel. It has not demonstrated the capacity or the financial commitment to compete for the I-AA national championship.

It is arguable that Georgetown football does not spend to be regularly competitive. With a budget that trails fellow Patriot league schools by such a degree that the Hoyas could double its spending and still rank last in the conference by budget, one unfamiliar with GU could assume that Georgetown’s financial backing does not put it in a position to compete for the Patriot League title; not spending to compete, merely spending to play.

"How will better the school?” asked The HOYA 47 years ago. “Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it’s advantageous.”

The secret to Georgetown’s future success isn’t to look to Delaware or Villanova for budgetary guidance. First, look up the hill.

As operating budgets go, Georgetown University is half that of Duke, a quarter that of Stanford. Yale produces enough endowment proceeds to fund the entire Georgetown operating budget, yet Georgetown’s annual endowment proceeds would fund two weeks of expenses at Yale. Yet, against considerable odds, Georgetown nonetheless competes with Duke, Yale, and other peers—not because it outspends these schools, but because, in part, it leverages its message and its spending that play to Georgetown’s strengths.

And what are these strengths? From "Established in 1789, Georgetown is the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university. Drawing upon this legacy, we provide students with a world-class learning experience focused on educating the whole person through exposure to different faiths, cultures and beliefs. With our Jesuit values and location in Washington, D.C., Georgetown offers students a distinct opportunity to learn, experience and understand more about the world."

Put another way:

1. The preeminent Roman Catholic university in the nation.
2. Exposure to a world-class education.
3. Location, location, location.

Over the next four installments, let’s talk about the targeted investment that could allow Georgetown to compete at the top of its football peer set, focusing to its strengths and opening the doors of a Georgetown education to a new generation of student-athlete that may have never considered it in the first place.

(That, and finishing the field.)