Extravagant spending on college athletics

The athletic tail wagging the academic dog

The latest extravagances in the college sports arms race?
Laser tag and mini golf.

By Will Hobson and Steven Rich
Washington Post, 2015-12-22

The people in charge of Clemson University’s athletic department have not settled on a design for the miniature golf course they are building for their football team, but they know it will have just nine holes, not 18.

That will leave room for the sand volleyball courts, laser tag, movie theater, bowling lanes, barber shop and other amenities planned in the $55 million complex that South Carolina’s second-largest public university is building exclusively for its football players.

“It’ll be their home on campus, when they’re not in class” said Clemson athletics spokesman Joe Galbraith of a building that represents the latest innovation in the athletic facilities arms race that is costing many of America’s largest public universities hundreds of millions of dollars and shows no signs of subsiding.

Facilities spending is one of the biggest reasons otherwise profitable or self-sufficient athletic departments run deficits, according to a Washington Post review of thousands of pages of financial records from athletic departments at 48 schools in the five wealthiest conferences in college sports.

In 2014, these 48 schools spent $772 million combined on athletic facilities, an 89-percent increase from $408 million spent in 2004, adjusted for inflation. Those figures include annual debt payments, capital expenses and maintenance costs. A decade of rampant athletics construction across the country has redefined what it takes to field a competitive top-tier college sports program. Football stadiums and basketball arenas now must be complemented by practice facilities, professional-quality locker rooms, players’ lounges with high-definition televisions and video game systems, and luxury suites to coax more money from boosters.

And now Clemson, whose undefeated Tigers are one of four teams in this year’s College Football Playoff, is building a football complex with an aspect school officials tout will be the first of its kind: a “players’ village” entertainment wing with attractions more commonly seen in arcades and theme parks than on college campuses.

“I am pumped,” Coach William “Dabo” Swinney said in a video the school released promoting the new building. “It is going to be the epitome of Clemson: fun, special, unique. It’s going to be the best in the country, without a doubt.”

Clemson’s new facility likely will be the best for just a matter of months, critics of college sports said, until the next school decides to transform a corner of its campus into what Drake Group President Gerald Gurney terms “day spas” designed to entice teenagers.

“This is all about pandering to the fantasies of 18-year-olds. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the mission of a university,” said Gurney, whose organization advocates an overhaul of commercialized college sports in America.

“What’s probably next down the line is a floating river attraction. . . . Why don’t we have a roller coaster?” said Gurney, who has worked in athletic departments at the University of Maryland and the University of Oklahoma, where he now teaches. “It’s embarrassing that we’re even discussing this.”

As wealthy donors at Clemson rush to outdo peers at other financially flush athletic departments, those with fewer resources look elsewhere for the cash needed to keep up. At Maryland, a new indoor football facility will be financed, in part, with millions from state government. At the University of Virginia and Rutgers University — whose athletic departments, like Maryland’s, are dependent on mandatory student fees — officials are mulling similar projects.

At other schools where historic fundraising drives bankrolled multimillion-dollar projects, officials fear expensive upgrades soon will be obsolete. At the University of Colorado Boulder, the athletic department is finishing a $156 million project that includes new locker rooms and offices for football and an indoor practice field.

“By the time we’re done . . . we’ll be right back behind them all again,” said Stephen Ludwig, a member of Colorado’s board of regents. “It’s a never-ending arms race to build shiny objects that appeal to 17-year-olds, so they’ll pick us instead of someone else.”


[Architect Joel] Leider is vice president of SportsPLAN, a small firm based in Kansas City, Mo., that specializes in designing collegiate athletic facilities

When he started in this business in the 1980s, Leider said, an indoor football practice facility was a rare job; only colleges in wintry regions needed them.

In the past 20 years, dozens of schools across the Southeast and Southwest have built indoor football facilities. Leider also finds himself facing more competition. At least 20 other companies have entered the college sports design sector since the 1990s, he said.

Some collegiate players now enjoy facilities superior to those offered by some professional teams. Florida State and the University of Florida have indoor football practice facilities. The NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars do not. Asked about this, Leider noted a significant difference between professional and college sports.


For some schools, facilities upgrades mean turning to students, government or lenders to help cover the cost.

At Georgia Tech, an athletic department that depends on mandatory student fees to help pay its bills has amassed $229 million in debt, records show.

In 2014, Georgia Tech athletics collected about $5.1 million from students, which covered about 7 percent of the department’s spending. Spread proportionally across the entire athletics budget, that means students covered about $980,000 of Georgia Tech’s $13.3 million annual debt payments on sports facilities including an indoor football practice field, upgrades to the basketball arena, a basketball practice facility and a softball field.