SIZE MATTERS

When it comes to college football, size really does matter.

Elite programs try to impress recruits with the size of their weight rooms (Alabama), the lavishness of their locker rooms (Oregon), and the number of Xboxes and PlayStations in players’ lounges (everyone!). Meanwhile, athletic departments argue about who has the biggest stadium with the most seats. Some schools even tout the width of the cushioned seats used to accommodate fans’ ever-expanding bottoms. 

Recently, the competition over size has extended to who has the biggest and fanciest video scoreboards. First, it was Texas. Then it was Arkansas. Then the Longhorns’ bitter rival: Texas A&M, down in College Station.

Now comes Auburn with what it is billing as “the nation’s largest college video board,” with an LED display area measuring 190 feet by 57 feet. The new and improved video board is scheduled to make its debut at Auburn’s home opener September 12th versus Jacksonville State. It will be 40 percent bigger than the video board in A&M’s Kyle Field, and slightly larger than the video screen at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

Auburn Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs told AuburnTigers.com that Auburn fans deserved “the biggest and the best.” Jacobs added that it was the right decision “not only because it’s the right thing to do for these young women and men, but because it is the foundation for which long-term athletic and business success can be built.”

Meaning – once again – that it is all about the football-first business model that drives big time college athletics. If it takes wider seats or bigger video boards to keep the fans happy, and those 90,000 or seats filled, then by God, let’s sell some more bonds and invest in the future.

The cost of the new video board: $13.9 million. That includes construction, the LED screen, and various other expenses.  

In case you’re wondering, Auburn had a perfectly nice video board. But according to Jacobs, it was no longer considered state of the art after just eight seasons (2007).

All of this got me thinking about the short shelf life of technology. It seems as though video boards are the college football equivalent of smart phones. If you don’t constantly upgrade to the newest, fanciest phone, you run the risk of becoming uncool. And if you become uncool, then the fans won’t come, putting your business model at risk. Curiously, the old video board was only used for 48 homes games (six games a year times eight years). But I guess that’s what passes for the expected lifespan of a video board these days.

Is there an opportunity cost to NOT adding a new scoreboard? I suppose there is. Technology-obsessed fans might grow bored and leave the game at halftime. But what about the opportunity cost to the university? I was curious, for example, how many professors Auburn could hire for the cost of its new video board?

The most recent salary data I could find were for 2013. That year a full professor at Auburn was paid just shy of $110,000. It turns out Auburn could hire 126 professors for the cost of its new video board. Wouldn’t that be nice, I thought. Auburn could grow its teaching staff by about 10 percent.

But then again, I was missing the point, and not for the first time in my journey through the big money culture of college football. Auburn football is an $80-million dollar business, give or take a few million. It is probably the university’s most popular brand. Why wouldn’t you borrow $13.9 million dollars to protect that investment?