The Big Business Of College Sports

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 1,301 views 

Editor’s note: This story, written by Rex Nelson, appears in the latest magazine issue of Talk Business Arkansas, which you can read online at this link

In July, former University of Arkansas football player and current Little Rock radio host David Bazzel attended what’s known as Southeastern Conference Football Media Days for the first time. Bazzel had heard about what goes on each summer at the Wynfrey Hotel in the Birmingham, Ala., suburb of Hoover. But actually being there made him realize what a “money-making and attention-getting machine” the SEC has become.

Bazzel, who has been the co-host of the morning drive show on KABZ-FM since 2004, was the creator of the Broyles Award for the nation’s top college football assistant and helped give birth to the Little Rock Touchdown Club. He has been around a lot of big-time sporting events in his career. Yet he has never seen anything quite like the circus that’s SEC Football Media Days, where more than 1,200 members of the media show up for three days in the middle of the summer to hear college football coaches and players spout a string of cliches.

“If we like something in this country, we try to make it bigger every year,” Bazzel says. “Take Halloween, for instance. It’s now a multimillion-dollar business. You see Halloween items on sale by the first of September. All I know is that we really like football in this country. It combines youth, emotion and other things to which we’re attracted. What I saw down in Alabama is an outgrowth of all that.”

SEC Football Media Days began in 1985, and the event has always been held in the Birmingham area. The Wynfrey hosted the affair from 1988-91 and again from 2001 to the present. At first, it was not a large gathering. That has changed as the SEC has captured the past seven national championships. Media attendance has more than doubled since 2004. The conference uses every inch of meeting space at the hotel, which is connected to a shopping mall. Surrounding motels and restaurants stay packed the entire three days. Several thousand Alabama fans now show up just to see a coach and a few players walk through the hotel lobby.

“Preparations begin in early April with meetings among the staff and with the hotel,” says Tammy Wilson, the associate director of media relations for the conference. “Preparations begin in earnest in mid-May. The two weeks leading up to the event are the busiest with credentials being approved and produced, menus being finalized, working with the hotel on meeting room needs, travel for the schools being scheduled, etc.”

And that’s just the preseason.

“College football is a money-making and an attention-getting machine,” Bazzel says. “America is about making money, and college sports is a vehicle for people to do that. I make part of my living off sports. Especially here in the South, college football is a part of the very fabric of who we are.”

Bazzel, a native of Panama City in the Florida panhandle, notes that in a region that once had few large urban areas and few professional franchises, college football gained an early foothold. But how much bigger can college sports – especially college football – become, even in the South? Is there a saturation point?

“The nature of intercollegiate athletics is always evolving and has changed dramatically in the time I’ve been associated with it as a student-athlete, then a coach and finally as an athletics administrator,” says Jeff Long, the University of Arkansas athletic director. “The demands on the top programs to win at a high level, graduate student-athletes, raise and generate the funds necessary to compete and provide appropriate institutional control measures to meet NCAA requirements all continue to build and expand each year.”

The pressure cooker has been turned up by a 24/7 media culture. There are literally thousands of blogs, websites, television programs and radio shows devoted to college sports across the country. That’s not to mention the many Twitter feeds devoted at least in part to college athletics.

“Student-athletes are constantly in the spotlight thanks to unprecedented television exposure, social media and other media coverage,” Long says. “There are many emerging issues that will continue to shape intercollegiate athletics in the next decade. Change is a constant, and one must embrace it in order to conduct a program in the best interests of our student-athletes.”

Long moved to Arkansas in the fall of 2007 as an adviser to then-UA Chancellor John White during Frank Broyles’ final months as athletic director. Waiting to step into the shoes of the legendary Broyles, Long quickly learned how much a part the Razorbacks are of the Arkansas psyche. At the same time, Long understood that a college athletic department is a big business and that there needed to be changes made in Fayetteville.

Long, an Ohio native with no previous connection to the state or its flagship university, wasted no time putting his stamp on the athletic department.

As athletic director at the University of Pittsburgh, Long had come to understand that programs must never stop looking for ways to increase revenue. The model of the old head football coach turned athletic director – a Broyles at Arkansas, a Tom Osborne at Nebraska, a Bo Schembechler at Michigan, a Vince Dooley at Georgia – has become a thing of the past. Athletic directors these days are the CEOs of multimillion-dollar corporations.

“Our reality is that our fan base, our university and our state expect us to compete and win in the strongest conference in the nation against institutions in more populous and wealthy states with larger fan bases, larger student bodies, larger stadiums and overall more resources,” Long says. “However, I don’t see it as pressure but as a challenge. Razorback fans, coaches and student-athletes have been responding to this challenge for decades. We simply could not achieve the success we have and will in the future without the support of those who love the Razorbacks and what our university and athletic program mean to this state.”

The most ardent supporters of SEC athletic programs often are people who never attended the schools. One thing Arkansans have learned about Long is that he isn’t shy about asking for contributions from anybody.

“We have a responsibility to help provide our more than 460 student-athletes, our coaches and our staff with what they need to succeed,” he says. “In the past five years, we have strategically grown our budget to better compete with those in our conference. I’m grateful to our Razorback Foundation members and fans who have responded to allow us to make those strides. Our goal will never be to have the largest budget in the SEC, but it will continue to be to put our student-athletes in a position to win championships in the nation’s most competitive conference.

“As the cost of fielding a nationally competitive program grows, we must continue to find new ways to support those efforts. Our ‘Never Yield’ campaign to raise funds for the academic student-athlete success center, basketball practice facility and baseball and track indoor training facility is essential to providing our program what it needs to compete and win in the SEC and on the national level.”

While the Razorbacks are the king of the hill in Arkansas and likely will remain so for decades to come, schools such as Arkansas State University, the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock have seen their athletic budgets grow exponentially in recent decades. Also growing at those schools are fan expectations and the pressure on administrators to bring in more outside funds than ever before.

Terry Mohajir came back to his alma mater, Arkansas State, as the athletic director in September 2012 and has not slowed down since. At the time Mohajir was hired, Tim Hudson, the chancellor of the Jonesboro campus, described his new AD as someone with “vision, energy and experience.”

At one time, an ASU athletic director probably would have been a former coach. It speaks to the new era in college athletics that Mohajir’s background is in corporate sales, ticket sales and marketing. Before coming to ASU, he was the chief marketing officer for the athletic department at the University of Kansas, where he supervised areas that generated more than $40 million in revenue.

“We don’t have a national brand yet,” Mohajir says of ASU. “We’ll get there. Every time we schedule games, we base our decisions on four criteria: Budget, expanding our base, competitive advantage and building that national brand. How do you build the brand? You win your conference and beat people you’re not supposed to beat. We like to think of ourselves as a school that will do things people don’t think we can do. We expect to win championships in all of our sports.”

At UALR, veteran athletic director Chris Peterson doesn’t have a football program, though he has a football background. Peterson’s father was a college coach and athletic director named Gil Peterson. Chris Peterson was an All-American quarterback coming out of high school in Huron, S.D. He played at Kansas State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He also coached at the collegiate level for seven years before moving into administration.

Even without a football program to sell, Peterson has proved to be a master fundraiser at UALR. It was Peterson who convinced the late Little Rock financier Jack Stephens to give more than $22 million, the largest gift in the history of the university, to build the Stephens Center. The 5,600-seat on-campus arena opened in 2005 and is still considered to be among the finest facilities of its size in the country.

“As the money in media rights skyrockets and the facility arms race continues, the model of collegiate athletics will be questioned,” Peterson admits. “This is not something new. Everyone wants to be successful, and that takes first-class facilities and competitive budgets.”

Even at UCA, which competes at the NCAA FCS level in football (formerly Division I-AA), the pressure to raise more funds is palpable. Last year, UCA unveiled plush private suites at Estes Stadium. Those suites comprise the top floor of a residential facility. Brad Teague, the UCA athletic director since January 2007, has overseen the school’s move to Division I.

Teague says colleges and universities outside of what are known as the Big Five conferences – the SEC, Big 10, Big 12, PAC 12 and ACC – play in a far different world.

“Those programs will continue to change and improve due to the revenue streams,” he says. “They are able to finance large amounts of debt for capital improvements and pay large salaries as well as donate back to the institution. The biggest change is in the facilities and the salaries with which the rest of us can’t compete. When does it end? We’ll see a $10-million coach soon, I’m sure.”

David Bazzel notes that when he began the Broyles Award in 1996, the top assistants in college football were making about $150,000 a year. Now, there are numerous offensive and defensive coordinators making in excess of $1 million annually.

“The increased television revenues drive that,” Bazzel says. “The new SEC Network and the money it produces will drive the salaries even higher. Where’s the ceiling? I don’t have a clue.”