Temple v Drexel (1)
Wikimedia Commons/Flickr via T. Cowart

Temple, Drexel and the fight over whether college football is worth it

Has football been a breadwinner for Temple and helped spur growth for donations and enrollment? Is Drexel’s football-free athletic department any better off?

Drexel president John Fry came out with the old-fashioned version of a subtweet against Temple last week. In an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, he suggested colleges shouldn’t waste resources on pursuing big-time football programs, pointing out several examples of financial losses and other failures related to the sport. Fry didn’t once mention the Owls. But the cross-town school was conspicuous in its absence, given that Temple has a football team with shaky finances and is pursuing a costly on-campus stadium.  

You don’t rise to the highest levels of academia without recognizing passive-aggressiveness when you see it, and Temple president Neil Theobald responded with a statement explaining all the awesome things football has done for his university: increases in enrollment, applications and contributions and a better academic ranking.

So, who wins? Has football been a breadwinner for Temple and helped spur growth for donations and enrollment? Is Drexel’s football-free athletic department any better off? Let’s take a look!

Temple donations and applications

Success in football might lead to more alumni deciding to give back to a university and to more high school students applying to attend. A 2012 study by University of California-Berkeley professor Michael L. Anderson found that an increase in football victories from three to eight could lead to an increase of donations as high as 28 percent and an increase in applications as high as 5 percent. Other studies have shown there’s no correlation between football victories and donations or applications. Theobald is clearly a believer, though.

He pointed out in his response to Fry’s editorial that one of the benefits from football has been better financial support from alumni. For the fiscal year 2014-15, Temple’s athletic donations did go up 29 percent from the previous year. But that fiscal year featured a 6-6 record for the football team.

Theobald also wrote that Temple had a record-breaking year for overall donations. That’s true. For fiscal year 2014-15, donors contributed $84 million — $25 million of which came from Lewis Katz’s estate. The number of total donors, over 19,000, were the highest Temple had seen since 2008. But, again, those particular landmarks in donations and donors followed a mediocre football season.

A lot more people have been applying to Temple lately, too. Is it because of football?

Theobald hinted in his response to Fry that the success of the football team has helped interest more students in becoming an Owl, and for next year specifically he said applications were up 12 percent compared to the previous year, which was a record-setting one for total applications. But several things not related to athletics might be driving up the applications.

For the first time ever, freshmen who applied to start at Temple in 2015 didn’t have to share their SAT score. Not one other public research university in the Northeast allowed students to apply without standardized test scores. So Temple was likely to be high on the list for any talented student on the East Coast who underperformed on the SAT. And that was the case. Applications for 2015 were up about 9 percent from the previous year to give Temple its record number of applicants. Of the approximate 30,000 applications received by Temple, about 25 percent of them were from students who did not submit an SAT score.

Temple has also improved its dormitory facilities and has taken over much of the adjacent neighborhoods — things that likely make the school more appealing.

The general trajectory of Temple football over the last decade has been of an improved team. The Owls moved into a better conference and are finishing with winning seasons and going to bowl games. This improvement in reputation has generally coincided with an increase in giving and an increase in applications. But, Ellen Staurowsky, a Drexel sports management professor and author of “College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth,” says Theobald’s thinking isn’t enough to prove cause and effect.

“There are too many contributing factors,” she said.

And even when it comes to possible benefits from the football team, the study by Anderson cautions that they might not be worthwhile if the football program struggles to be financially successful. Temple definitely has a problem in that area.

How Drexel and Temple both fail: Making money

Fry pointed out in his editorial that the great majority of NCAA football teams don’t make money.

Temple fits squarely into that camp. It is probably losing money on the sport despite what the athletic department is publicly reporting.

According to information from the Department of Education, Temple football made $14,247,503 in revenue and had the same amount for expenses. Every other sport for men and women had revenues matching expenses, too.

The Owls either know how to perfectly spend what they make, or they’re not portraying their finances as accurately as possible — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Athletic departments are not required by the NCAA or anyone else to calculate their finances in a uniform way, so it’s pretty common for many of them to fudge their numbers. Temple, which had to cut seven sports in 2013, is likely moving its numbers around to avoid showing that the athletic department is losing money.

In his response to Fry, he wrote that Temple’s football team even subsidized the other sports. The numbers the university has turned into the Department of Education show the opposite. If football is breaking even, it can’t be paying for anything else. In fact, it wouldn’t be worth more to the university in strict financial terms than the rowing team.

“In terms of the ledger sheet,” Staurowsky said, “football is no more valuable than any of the other sports.”

At some universities, athletic departments are self-sustaining businesses. That’s not the case with Temple, which receives a subsidy from the university. As recently as fiscal year 2012, that subsidy was $8.1 million.  

Students at Temple are paying for the athletic department, too. For this year, the University Services Fee, which also goes toward computer equipment, recreation facilities and healthcare, was $790 per student.

But how about Drexel? The numbers it submitted to the Department of Education show it’s barely making more than it spends. Its revenue for athletics in the latest fiscal year was $21,459,837 and its expenses totaled $21,057,562.

A Drexel spokesperson declined to comment for this article. But Staurowsky said that given Drexel’s Department of Education data, it’s likely the school heavily subsidizes the athletic department.

So Drexel is likely resorting to the same practices of tapping into university resources to pay for an athletic department, and it doesn’t even have a football program. As you could imagine, Fry didn’t mention in his article that Drexel was receiving subsidies when he referenced the problem of subsidies at other schools.

The redeeming quality of Drexel

At the end of his subtweet/editorial, Fry referred to Drexel as a kind of mystical, forward-thinking place where sports and academics were valued properly because of the lack of a football program.

Staurowsky believes Drexel’s athletic department does have a quality separating it from most: Title IX equality. For one of the classes she teaches, she studies financial information from universities very closely and has found Drexel to be one of a few athletic departments that distributes resources as close to evenly as possible to men’s and women’s programs.

“I think that Drexel,” she said, “is a little bit more equitable than a good many institutions around the country.” 

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