UND president: College sports are expensive, but it's worth it
Editor's note: In his Sunday column, Forum Communications columnist Rob Port says colleges should stop subsidizing their sports programs. Port had made that point earlier in the week at his political blog, SayAnythingBlog.com; the Herald happened to be talking with UND President Mark Kennedy at about that time, and we asked the president about it.
Here is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
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Herald: At SayAnythingBlog.com, Rob Port has a post where he says, "At UND, sports programs lost $13.3 million in 2016." He asks why colleges subsidize any sports at all, given that all of the sports seem to lose money in North Dakota, including men's hockey at UND. Football apparently loses more money than women's hockey does.
So, why should UND subsidize intercollegiate sports?
Kennedy: I have said many times and will say many times that sports are the front porch of the university. What that means is that the programs are the "porch" where you invite others onto the property; and once they're there, they see what's inside—the wonderful programs that you have, the great campus, the ambiance, the students.
It attracts your future students, in other words. And not just for your face-to-face programs, as it also helps create the brand for your online programs.
So, if you think of that as recruiting and marketing, that is one of the key benefits that the university receives.
With that as the lens, a financially minded person like Rob Port can take the number of people in the stands (and watching on TV or otherwise following the team), and divide that number by how much it costs. That's a way of determining how much "front porch" am I getting for how much I'm investing.
On that basis, although football is more expensive, clearly in terms of how many fans are in the stands and elsewhere falling in love with UND, the cost of each of them is frankly a lot less for football than it is for many of the other sports.
The other things that may not be fully reflected in cost-of-sports reports are things like the Championship Club and other donations that come in that are not assigned to any one sport. But largely, you're making contributions at the Championship Club so that you get preferential ticket access to hockey and football, for the most part.
So, if all of activity was fully accounted for, would men's hockey still be losing money? Would football really cost more than women's hockey? Those are the questions that you'd have to ask.
Herald: In his column this week, Herald columnist Mike Jacobs mentions another factor, which is the experience of going to college. Many students learn from and remember that aspect of their time in college as vividly as they do their classroom education.
Cheering on your team strikes us as being a part of that, as people can see every weekend at college stadiums across the country.
Kennedy: In my view, you really don't understand America unless you've been at one of those major-college, high-attendance sporting events. You have to understand the passion that they have for it, the gratification that they take from it and the deep affection that the association with the college and the team engenders.
Herald: Even in Grand Forks, we see it on Friday and Saturday nights when the men's hockey team plays. The college-hockey atmosphere in the Ralph is one of a kind.
Kennedy: The other thing I would point out is that as you know, we're partners with the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. on the issue of attracting workforce. If you're deciding, "Do I want to live here?", you're wondering, "Do they have good schools?" and "What are the tax rates in the community?"
But you're also thinking, "Do they have activities where I can spend my free time?"—whether that means going to a play, going to a museum or going to a sporting event.
UND athletics is a huge asset to this community even beyond UND, I would suggest, because it helps keeps talented people in the metropolitan area. Because there are entertainment activities here that are world-class, including hockey, as you mentioned.
Understand, we also need the chorales, the plays, the art exhibits and so on. All of these add the texture to a community that makes it attractive to people to stay.
So where sports are concerned, there are multiple reasons that need to be considered, and we've tried to make the best decision we could.
The other thing to point out is that people's devotion to a team goes up dramatically if the team is winning. You have more of a better experience—a better experience on campus—if you have a track record of success.
Some might suggest you should spread the "peanut butter" (the financing) thinner in order to maintain a wider array of sports. But if you do that, you're going to have a hard time being competitive. And that means you're not going to see the benefit to the university of having fans in the stands, excited about their team.
Likewise, you're not going to have the workforce attraction if you've got a team that's consistently an also-ran.
Herald: Did that financing factor play into the decisions regarding swimming and women's hockey?
Kennedy: Yes. You reported, as you know, that our basketball coach makes a lot less than his counterpart at South Dakota and South Dakota State, even though he and his coaching staff led us to the Dance for the first time.
I think you or others had similar reports about our football coaching staff. And we did, as you know, extend a contract and increase some coaches' salaries in recognizing that success.
So, particularly in a time of budget constraints, it's going to be hard to invest in those winning teams—winning coaching teams—and the athletes they attract and lead if we are spread too thin.
Herald: Is that philosophy part of a plan?
Kennedy: I think every time I've talked about athletics, I've talked about the need to make sure that we're focused on giving our teams a fighting chance to be competitive.
And so, it is part of a plan, and it is specific to the moment as well, with the backdrop being the budget realities that we're going through.