Looking for high school athletes to build Daemen College’s new women’s tennis team took Stephen Beatty far beyond the college’s usual Western New York recruiting grounds.
The tennis coach dangled a partial scholarship offer to Hayle Scanlan – a high school sectional champion in Indianapolis.
Scanlan had not heard of Daemen, but she was interested in studying to be a physician’s assistant, and Daemen has a strong program. Just as important, Scanlan wanted to keep swinging a racquet competitively. So she listened to Beatty in 2012.
“I don’t think I looked at any schools that didn’t have tennis,” said Scanlan, who enrolled, made the dean’s list and became one of the team’s most reliable players.
More than ever, colleges are leaning on intercollegiate athletics to attract students like Scanlan. Colleges are spending more money than ever on sports, adding new teams, enhancing competition levels and trying to keep pace with rival athletics programs. Sports expenses nationwide ballooned to $10.8 billion in 2015, up 30 percent over five years. In Western New York, colleges spent a collective $86.4 million on intercollegiate sports, up 23 percent since 2010, according to a Buffalo News analysis of federal education data.
Spending per athlete increased at 16 of 18 area colleges during that span.
The spending was most pronounced among teams in Division 1, the highest level of intercollegiate competition:
• The University at Buffalo football team alone cost $7.3 million, the most expensive college sports team in the region.
• Spending on St. Bonaventure University’s men’s basketball amounted to $179,392 per player – the priciest per-player team in the region. The 69 percent spending increase for Bonnies men’s basketball between 2010 and 2015 was second only to Virginia Commonwealth University in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
• Niagara University increased spending on women’s lacrosse by 184 percent.
• Canisius College increased spending on men’s swimming and diving by 65 percent.
But Division II and III colleges and community colleges also spent more on sports, both in total dollars and in proportion to overall institutional spending.
Daemen College doubled its outlays on sports, from $1.4 million to $2.8 million, between 2010 and 2015.
On many campuses, students who don’t play sports pick up the tab for the small fraction of students who do. And, the spending spree on sports occurred even as more families struggled to pay for college and as student debt soared. At some schools, athletics budgets grew despite enrollment declines and cutbacks in other areas, prompting concerns from faculty about an overemphasis on athletics.
The growing athletics spending has not gone unnoticed by academics, some of whom worry that sports detract from the primary instructional mission of their institutions.
College administrators continue to try and justify increases in sports spending as helping their institutions, when deep down they know it’s “simply not a profitable venture,” said Andrew S. Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who studies sports financing.
“It happens because alumni like it and people are crazy about sports in this country,” Zimbalist said. “A lot of people, including college administrators, buy into the mythology of the importance of college sports.”
College administrators counter that athletics help attract more students, bolster the bottom lines of their institutions and add to the vibrancy of campus life. Many colleges also rely on sports as an important marketing tool.
“I always say investing in athletics is the best thing you can do, if you do it right,” said Bridget E. Niland, Daemen’s athletics director and an associate professor of business administration. “We are a sports driven nation. You can’t deny the fact that sports help grow a brand.”
Daemen added men’s and women’s tennis teams and bolstered its track and field program.
The college also left the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), a governing body of small athletics programs that describes itself as “dedicated to character-driven intercollegiate athletics.” The Amherst college joined the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Division II, comprised of more than 300 colleges that the association says “provide thousands of student-athletes the opportunity to compete at a high level of scholarship athletics.”
Daemen is now the only area college whose teams compete at the NCAA Division II level, which allows colleges to recruit athletes by offering scholarships.
While spending more, Daemen also received more revenue, in part because of the additional students who enrolled with the help of partial athletic scholarships. Daemen had 20 percent more students playing sports in 2015 than in 2010, the largest percentage increase in the area.
“What you hope to do is get athletics to pick up the lion’s share of its costs of operating and then reap other benefits, more students, better students,” said Daemen President Gary Olson.
The federal data don’t show exactly how colleges and institutions pay for their athletics programs, nor spell out how much private colleges and universities generate from ticket sales, fundraising and corporate sponsorships directly related to athletics. So far, Olson said, Daemen has seen “a dramatic increase in external money coming into athletics,” including sponsorships, concessions money, donations and fees paid from outside the campus for renting athletic space or attending college-sponsored sports camps. Olson and Niland estimated the external revenue at $400,000, up from about $60,000 a few years ago.
“This represents a real move toward athletics becoming self sustaining or at least as self sustaining as it can be,” Olson said. “The return on investment right now is fabulous.”
Schools across Western New York increasingly are trying to capitalize on a national obsession with sports. After decades on the sidelines, Villa Maria College in Cheektowaga introduced men’s and women’s soccer and men’s and women’s basketball in 2015, and will begin offering bowling, cross country and golf this year. The latest federal data on athletics don’t include Villa’s numbers, but Brian Emerson, vice president for enrollment and student services, said the college made a “significant” investment on the new sports programs. In all, the new sports could end up attracting as many as 75 new students to the campus, he said. Administrators there ultimately expect to see a return of two to four times from new tuition revenue to the school.
“Sports is a big deal. Sports is so much a part of our culture, and these kids play and play and play their brains out and they specialize, and their parents invest lots of money and lots of time, and so do the students. Students don’t want to turn that off,” said Emerson. “They want to compete at the next level or the highest level. It’s such a dream for some of these kids to go to college or get a scholarship to play sports.”
Hilbert College added men’s lacrosse in 2010 and women’s lacrosse in 2011, and college officials recently said that this fall they will bring to the Hamburg campus women’s bowling and men’s and women’s outdoor track. Sports spending grew by 54 percent between 2010 and 2015 at Hilbert and likely will grow more with the new sports.
Richard Pinkowski, who’s Hilbert’s vice president for finance, said the sports program has helped with enrollment and is “really not a net expense” for the college. Hilbert saw a 14 percent bump in its student athlete population between 2010 and 2015, according to the federal data. Athletes tend to live on campus and buy campus meal plans, auxiliary enterprises that are money makers for most schools.
“Yes, expenses are going up, but we’re also bringing in more students that more than cover those costs,” Pinkowski said.
If Hilbert didn’t offer, say, lacrosse, how many of the college’s lacrosse players would’ve enrolled at Hilbert? Pinkowski’s answer: “Some, yes. Many, no.”
Houghton College, a small Christian liberal arts school in Allegany County, moved from the NAIA to NCAA Division III and added baseball and softball in 2011, and men’s and women’s lacrosse and men’s and women’s tennis in 2012. With the additional sports, the number of student athletes on campus grew, even as Houghton experienced a drop in overall undergraduate enrollment. But the college decreased its sports spending by $100,000 between 2010 and 2015, saving money in part through reduced travel expenses. Rival colleges in Division III were closer than the opposing NAIA teams.
“We’re trying to expand opportunities for student athletes and yet at the same time not be part of that continuing escalation of total costs,” said Skip Lord, Houghton athletics director.
Dream of playing
Overall, opportunities to play are still relatively few and far between. Student athletes make up less than 15 percent of student bodies on most campuses. The number of students playing intercollegiate sports in the area grew slightly between 2010 and 2015. Some 2,936 athletes played on men’s teams in 2015, with 2,322 playing on women’s teams.
Justin Figler considers himself lucky to be among them. Figler, a goalkeeper on Daemen’s men’s soccer team, returned to the field this week for practices, with the season starting in a few weeks. Daemen’s commitment to athletics allowed Figler to keep playing the game he’s loved since he was a boy, while at the same time getting the tuition aid he needed for college.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play at a higher level,” said Figler, who studies physical therapy.
Scanlan also feels fortunate she was able to extend her tennis playing years. She knows she won’t be able to compete nearly as much after she graduates from Daemen.
“I’ve played since I was 4 years old,” she said.
There have been ancillary benefits, too. Scanlan enjoys traveling, and the competition allows her explore parts of the country she might not otherwise see.
“The first time I went to New York City, I went with the tennis team,” she said.
UB’s athletic mission
The bulk of spending on sports was concentrated in the area’s four Division I programs. The University at Buffalo, the area’s biggest spender by far, pumped nearly $6 million more into athletics in 2015 than in 2010. UB was especially generous with its men’s basketball team, increasing spending by 58 percent over five years, the second-highest growth rate in the Mid-America Conference. The allure of the NCAA’s Division I basketball tournament, dubbed “March Madness,” has long fueled basketball spending among colleges.
The men’s basketball team in 2015 made its first appearance ever in the NCAA tourney, followed by a second appearance in the 2016 tournament. The UB women’s basketball team last spring appeared for the first time in the women’s tournament.
“That’s better than spending more and not having any sort of results,” said UB Athletics Director Allen Greene. “It was intentional to reallocate some funds to support and give men’s basketball and women’s basketball a boost so that we could see the results that we’ve seen the past couple years.”
Chartered flights, other travel costs and coaches’ salaries made up most of the extra spending, Greene said. UB has faced criticism over the years from some faculty and students over the amount it spends on intercollegiate athletics. But Greene maintained that the spending was not out of line for an institution of UB’s caliber and size.
“I don’t think they’re disproportionate at all,” he said of the expenses. “So as long as we can continue to increase our athletic department revenue, the hope is that we can continue to use that, instead of university resources.”
Student athletes make up less than 3 percent of the undergraduate student body at UB, which does not use athletics as a strategy to help boost enrollment in the way that smaller colleges do. Still, Greene called athletics vital to the university’s educational mission.
“Athletics truly is the front porch of the marketing arm for the university,” Greene said. “Certainly it’s not the most important aspect of the university, but it has significant implications on how people view the university,” he said. “Unfortunately, not all research is visible, not all academic accolades are visible, but NCAA tournaments are very visible. That allows us to tell our story about being a truly dynamic and transformative and flagship university.”
St. Bonaventure spent even more than UB on men’s basketball in 2015 – $2.7 million – accounting for 28 percent of the university’s athletics budget and nearly 5 percent of all university spending that year.
Basketball spending at Canisius College grew less dramatically, but it outpaced the growth in outlays by Canisius’ Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference competitors, including Niagara University, which increased basketball spending by 3 percent and overall sports spending by 5 percent.
The Rev. James J. Maher, president of Niagara, said the university tries to be “very careful about not getting over extended” with its athletics spending, while recognizing that sports can be a strategic tool to help drive enrollment in specific programs.
“Managing costs and revenue in higher education and in enrollment is a little bit like using a Rubik’s cube,” Maher said.
The growth in athletics budgets at St. Bonaventure and Canisius happened even as those institutions experienced significant undergraduate enrollment declines, resulting in reductions in full-time faculty and staff. Canisius, which relies on tuition and fees for more than 85 percent of its revenue, saw undergraduate enrollment decline by 15 percent between 2010 and 2015.
Without sports, the slide might have been worse.
“We asked our athletes: ‘If we didn’t have Division I athletics here, would you have come?’ Ninety-six or 97 percent of them said, ‘No, we wouldn’t,’” said Canisius President John J. Hurley.
Adding women’s rowing and men’s and women’s track and field in 2011 led to an increase of 52 student athletes on campus between 2010 and 2015. While many of those students received partial scholarships, they still paid enough in tuition and fees to more than offset the costs of their sports, Hurley said.
At Canisius, faculty were “closely monitoring” sports spending patterns, said the Rev. Patrick J. Lynch, chairman of the religious studies department and a faculty representative to the college’s budget committee. Some faculty members, he said, think the college should consider dropping intercollegiate sports or at least downsizing the number of teams, while others believe Canisius should invest more money in sports in an effort to attract more students.
“The overriding concern is to recruit more students who will increase the college’s revenue that will benefit everyone,” Lynch said.