Costs force UAB to cut popular football program

A sign of increasing financial pressures for NCAA Division I participating schools

University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) announced Tuesday that it would end its football program after determining it could no longer afford the high cost of fielding a competitive team in an increasingly competitive athletics landscape.

The school's team is the first NCAA Division I football team to dissolve in nearly 20 years. The move came after an 18-month financial review led by UAB President Ray Watts. Administrators estimate that ending the football program will save the school $50 million over the next ten years.

The announcement is both a symptom of the tighter budgets that many universities are facing as well as structural shifts in the NCAA.

According to the NCAA, 108 out of 128 Division I football programs lost money last year. UAB was among them, and the program would have had to go even deeper into the red in order to remain competitive. The school estimated revamping the football program would have cost an additional $27 million over five years plus $22 million for new facilities.

"The escalation of the arms race in Division I football made it hard to see that the investment in UAB football over time could have enough money put into it to have a program that would be successful," says John Johns, a member of the University of Alabama system’s board of trustees.

NCAA allows schools to pay more

Much of this financial pressure came from recent changes within the NCAA. Players' unions and other advocacy organizations are pressuring the NCAA to better compensate student athletes for their participation in collegiate sports.

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In response, the NCAA now allows participating schools to pay students more. Earlier this year, the autonomous "Big 5" conferences—the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pacific-12, and the Southeastern conference—proposed a so-called "cost of attendance" initiative to bridge what current athletic scholarships cover and actual cost students pay to participate.

The "cost" in question varies by school, but could be as high as $10,000 per athlete. The schools will use the funds to increase the value of athletics scholarships, provide players with stipends, and cover basic expenses like travel home for breaks.

The plan's biggest supporters are also the association's largest and most prestigious athletic programs—which face less financial pressure because of revenue from television contracts and other sources.

Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference (MAC), said financing the proposal would be a challenge, though he plans to find a way to do so. David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University, a member of the MAC, says the implementation cost at his school would ultimately fall on students.

A burden for students

Ridpath authored a study (scheduled to be published later this winter) and found the average MAC student paid approximately $300 a semester to subsidize athletics programs last academic year.

Jane Wellman, a policy expert who follows the issue of rising college costs, says more schools will have to reckon with how to pay for their athletic programs. "As a general matter, the costs of football in competitive conferences are rising significantly faster than in academic programs, and I think unless an institution wants to trade off academic quality for football glory indefinitely, something's got to happen," she says.

It may not always be an easy decision. Schools often rely on athletics programs for recruitment and alumni engagement. Justin Craft, a leader of a vocal UAB football fan club, is not pleased with the decision. "People around the country don’t know who UAB is except that they saw them play Mississippi State on the SEC Network," he says (Schonbrun/Strauss, New York Times, 12/2; Rivard, Inside Higher Ed, 12/3).

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